By Arshad Mohammed and Louis Charbonneau
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States said on Saturday it will send its No. 2 diplomat to Geneva to meet senior Iranian officials on Monday and Tuesday in what appeared an effort to break a logjam in wider negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program.
Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who led secret U.S.-Iranian negotiations that helped bring about a Nov. 24 interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the major powers, will head a U.S. delegation. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the primary U.S. negotiator with Iran, will accompany him on a team that will include senior White House national security staff.
The most recent round of nuclear talks between Iran and six major powers in Vienna last month ran into difficulties, with each side accusing the other of having unrealistic demands in negotiations aimed at curbing Tehran's atomic program in exchange for an end to economic sanctions.
The U.S. decision to travel to Geneva and meet with the Iranian delegation, which a senior U.S. official said might be led by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, appeared to reflect Washington’s desire to try to break the deadlock.
"In order to really seriously test whether we can reach a diplomatic solution with Iran on its nuclear program, we believe we need to engage in very active and very aggressive diplomacy," the senior U.S. official told Reuters.
"We're at a critical moment," the U.S. official added. "We’ve always said that we would engage bilaterally with the Iranians if it can help advance our efforts, in active coordination with the P5+1."
The United States is set to join the other members of the six-power negotiating group known as the P5+1 – Great Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – plus Iran for a full round of negotiations June 16-20 in Vienna. The talks are coordinated by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
A French diplomatic source said next week's U.S.-Iran talks were being carried out in concert with the rest of the major powers, which the U.S. official confirmed. "This meeting is in consultation with the other five. There are specific American aspects regarding lifting of sanctions in case of an agreement that they need to go through with the Iranians," the French diplomatic source said.
Ashton's spokesman Michael Mann said EU Political Director Helga Schmid would join the U.S.-Iranian talks, which he said were taking place "in the context of the intensified ... negotiating process with Iran."
Mann added that the U.S. delegation would be meeting with Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi.
JULY 20 DEADLINE LOOMS
Robert Einhorn, a former top U.S. non-proliferation official, said he viewed the Burns trip as an effort to meet what appears to be an extremely challenging deadline of July 20 to secure a comprehensive agreement on Iran's nuclear program.
"There were growing concerns, I think, on all sides that the July 20 target date was becoming increasingly difficult to meet," said Einhorn, now at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. "Because the engagement at Bill Burns’ level proved instrumental in reaching the interim agreement in November, I think both sides thought it would be useful to try that channel again," he added.
Although the United States has pursued the six-power negotiating track with Iran, any workable deal will likely have to be based on a bilateral agreement between Washington and Tehran. The United States cut off ties with Iran during a hostage crisis shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
High-level bilateral meetings between the United States and Iran, virtually unthinkable in years past, have become almost routine on the sidelines of the nuclear talks with Tehran, which began in Geneva last October and moved to Vienna in February.
In announcing the Burns trip, the State Department stressed the talks were taking place "in the context of the P5+1 nuclear negotiations led by EU High Representative Cathy Ashton."
This appeared to be an effort to quiet any discontent on the part of other members of the group, some of whom were displeased last year that they were not fully informed of the details of the secret U.S.-Iran talks led by Burns.
The senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the talks next week were not negotiations.
"These are really consultations to exchange views in advance of the next negotiating round in Vienna," the official said.
The official said Washington was being open about the bilateral consultations with Iran "unlike before when it needed to be kept very discreet to give it the best chance of success".
Iran will hold separate bilateral meetings with Russian negotiators in Rome on June 11-12, Iranian media reported.
"We haven't yet seen the kind of realism on the Iranian side that we need to see or seen them make some of the tough choices we’re going to have to see," the official said.
The talks are aimed at reaching a deal under which Tehran would curb parts of its nuclear program in exchange for an end to sanctions that have crippled its economy.
Western officials say that Iran insists on maintaining an excessive uranium enrichment capability, which Tehran says is necessary so that it is not dependent on foreign suppliers for fuel for its nuclear reactors.
Tehran rejects allegations from Western powers and their allies that it is seeking the capability to produce atomic weapons under cover of a civilian energy program.
At last month’s Vienna negotiations, U.S. and Iranian officials said Iran and the six world powers had made little progress on ending their dispute, raising doubts over the prospects for a breakthrough by a July 20 deadline. [ID:nL6N0O23VM]
(Editing by Doina Chiacu, Stephen Powell and Gunna Dickson)