GENEVA - -Iran will allow inspections of its secret atomic facility near Qom and the major powers will hold another round of negotiations this month on the Islamic republic's nuclear program, officials said Thursday after completing talks in Geneva, where U.S. and Iranian representatives also held a rare one-on-one meeting.
Iran said it would allow inspections of its uranium enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom, said Javier Solana, the European Union's top foreign policy official. That could come within weeks, he said, adding that the next talks among Iran and six world powers would be held this month.
U.S. officials were cautiously optimistic about the talks but said they want to see what Iran actually does.
"Today's meeting was a constructive beginning, but it must be followed with constructive action by the Iranian government," said President Barack Obama, who added that Iran must grant "unfettered access" to the Qom nuclear facility.
Obama noted that Iran had agreed in principle to allow enrichment of a small amount of uranium for medical research outside the country. That is considered a positive sign because it could eliminate the need for Iran to have its own enrichment program.
But the president warned that U.S. patience is not infinite.
"We are committed to serious and meaningful engagement, but we're not interested in talking for the sake of talking," Obama said in televised comments. "If Iran does not take steps in the near future to live up to its obligations, then the United States will not continue to negotiate indefinitely. We are prepared to move toward increased pressure."
The highlight of the Geneva session was a meeting between William Burns, the U.S. undersecretary of state, and Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief negotiator, "on the margins" of the nuclear talks. The meeting, rare since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 ruptured ties between the nations, lasted about 30 minutes, said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.
Burns used the meeting "to reiterate the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear program," Wood said. "He addressed the need for Iran to take concrete and practical steps that are consistent with its international obligations and that will build international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its program."
The bilateral encounter came after Iran and representatives of Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - convened in a secluded villa on the outskirts of Geneva to try to relieve growing international pressure over Iran's nuclear program. After lunch, the diplomats reconvened in a plenary session and talked for several hours at Villa le Saugy.
Some analysts believe that Iran's strategy includes trying to convince the Russian delegation, headed by Sergei Rybakov, that it is willing to cooperate at least at a minimum level. Russia has been a defender of Iran and might be the most likely to argue that minimal cooperation is enough to justify further meetings instead of a turn to discussions on tougher economic sanctions.
The talks in Geneva came less than a week after revelations of a new Iranian installation that U.S. officials said was designed for enriching uranium in secret. Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian energy purposes, but the United States and its allies believe that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
Because of the nuclear program, the United Nations approved three rounds of sanctions against Iran in December 2006, March 2007 and March 2008. Iran is barred from importing and exporting nuclear material. It is also banned from exporting arms, and some assets have been frozen.