BRUSSELS The European Union's foreign policy chief said on Friday she hoped upcoming talks with Iran would form the basis for Tehran to eventually abandon its alleged nuclear weapons programme.
Speaking ahead of talks scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad, Catherine Ashton - who has been representing the major powers at talks about Iran's nuclear activity - said she had high hopes for the new round of negotiations.
"My ambition is that we come away with the beginning of the end of the nuclear weapons programme in Iran," she told reporters in Brussels. "I hope we'll see the beginnings of success."
The West suspects Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but Tehran says its programme is purely for peaceful purposes such as power generation.
Ashton's use of the term "nuclear weapons programme" went beyond the language commonly used by Western officials, who usually describe Iran's efforts as an attempt to move towards a nuclear weapons capability.
In January, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that Iran was keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities. But he said he did not know whether Iran would eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.
Negotiations over Iran's alleged military programme and over access to suspect sites resumed in Turkey in April after a 15-month hiatus, and are due to resume on May 23 in Baghdad.
Ashton said she would approach the talks as a "serious set of discussions that can lead to concrete results".
Iran has said it wants sanctions introduced by the United States and the EU aimed at dissuading it from pushing ahead with its nuclear ambitions to be scaled back.
But Western diplomats say Iran must first take concrete steps to ease their concerns.
The sanctions have targeted Iran's energy and banking sectors since the beginning of this year, and the EU is preparing for a total embargo on the purchase of Iranian crude oil in July.
Ashton represents the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany in dealings with Iran.
She was speaking at a joint news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, at which Iraq and the EU signed a framework agreement on cooperation. This will provide for regular political dialogue to boost trade and investment, as well as cooperation in areas such as health, education and energy.
(Reporting By Sebastian Moffett; Editing by Andrew Osborn)