GENEVA (Reuters) - Iran said on Friday it did not expect an attack from Israel or the United States triggered by the long-running dispute over its nuclear programme.
Diplomats from Iran and world powers will meet in Geneva on Saturday to discuss the nuclear issue. Washington will attend the talks for the first time, a notable shift in policy which has raised hopes of progress.
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, arriving in the Swiss city on Friday, said he was taking a positive approach to the talks.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said he did not expect Iran to come under attack. Speculation of a strike on Iranian nuclear sites intensified after an Israeli air exercise last month.
“The possibility of such an attack (from Israel or the U.S.) is almost zero,” Mottaki said, via a translator, in an interview with Turkish broadcaster NTV during a visit to Turkey.
In a further indication of a possible thaw, Mottaki earlier raised the prospect of talks on restoring relations between Iran and the United States. Washington broke off diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980 during a hostage crisis in Tehran.
“I think there may be talks on both the U.S. founding an interest preserving bureau in Iran and direct flights between the two countries,” Mottaki said. He did not specify when and in what shape those talks could occur.
Iran’s Jalili was upbeat about the nuclear talks in Geneva.
“Iran enters the nuclear talks with positive intentions,” he said on his arrival in the Swiss city. Asked about the U.S. presence, he said: “What is important is their intentions.”
Senior U.S. diplomat Williams Burns will join European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and officials from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China for the meeting.
The powers are seeking a more detailed Iranian response to their enhanced offer of financial and diplomatic incentives to halt secretive nuclear activity which the West fears is a cover for making bombs. Tehran says it is aimed solely at generating electricity.
A senior Iranian official said the Geneva talks would be pivotal in deciding whether diplomacy could succeed.
“These talks will clarify the fate of the negotiations. After the meeting, either negotiations will continue or it will fully stop,” the official told Reuters.
However, when asked whether it meant Iran was ready to freeze any expansion of its nuclear programme in return for the U.N. Security Council halting further sanctions measures against it, the source said “not at all”.
The U.N. has imposed three sets of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme.
Tensions with Iran have intensified, particularly since Tehran tested missiles last week, alarming Israel and pushing up oil prices on fears that conflict could disrupt supply. Washington responded to the tests by saying it would defend its allies against any possible attacks.
Oil prices fell 10 percent earlier this week on signs of an easing of tensions between Iran and the West and worries that high prices and a weaker U.S. economy will undermine demand.
Traders were mindful on Friday that oil prices could retreat further if the talks made progress.
The Bush administration said it was not changing its stance that it will join full-blown negotiations with Iran only if Tehran first shelves uranium enrichment work, which can have both civilian and military uses.
Iran has repeatedly refused to stop its most sensitive nuclear work, as the six powers say it must do before formal talks can begin on the package of economic and other benefits.
Even for preliminary talks on the offer, they say Tehran must freeze any expansion of its nuclear programme in return for the U.N. Security Council halting further sanctions measures.