MOSCOW - With Iran facing new oil export sanctions in less than two weeks, talks over Tehran's nuclear program opened on Monday in Moscow with a new spirit of urgency.
Iran immediately asked Western nations to ease sanctions as a precondition to stopping its nuclear enrichment project. The demand was made to representatives of the five permanent member nations of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany. They met with Iranian negotiators in the third effort in three months to try to persuade Tehran to drop plans to enrich uranium to 20 percent.
Iran says it needs enriched uranium for medical and energy needs. The international community says it would put Iran on a fast track to making a nuclear bomb.
After the first day of talks, EU foreign policy spokesman Michael Mann said, "The first step is to have the Iranians engage on 20 percent," adding that "new sanctions will come into force on July 1. And, as a general rule, sanctions can always be reviewed. But they can only be reviewed in response to concrete actions on the ground."
A first round of U.S.-led sanctions has cut Iran's oil exports nearly in half this year. And European sanctions are set to further cut Iran's oil revenues. On July 1, EU countries will be banned from buying Iranian oil, and EU companies will be banned from insuring Iran oil cargoes.
Western diplomats say the Iranian government is starting to feel the effects of these sanctions. The proof, they say, is Iran's demand to lift them.
After Tehran's initial demand on Monday to end the sanctions, negotiations turned to point-by-point discussions. At the end of the day, Iranian spokesman Ali Bagheri told reporters that the talks were "constructive and serious."
EU spokesman Mann used similar language.
"It was a tough negotiation. It was frank, businesslike. That's what it was about," he said. "It was about having serious discussions about serious issues."
Russia's spokesman said that a big gap remains between positions, but he described the mood of the talks as "benevolent."
Analysts say Russian officials would like to see progress made in Moscow to show that Russia is a world power as Vladimir Putin starts his third term as president. The Russians hinted that the Iran nuclear talks might run through Wednesday, an extra day.
Rajab Safarov, director of the Center for Modern Iran Studies in Moscow, says Western powers will try to make the talks fail to diminish Putin's prestige. Last week, Safarov accompanied Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Tehran to try to make progress on the Iranian nuclear issue.
For more than a decade, Western nations and Russia have worried that Iran was working to build a nuclear bomb. Tehran's advances in uranium enrichment have eroded Iran's relations with the West.
The Iranian government has long been a sworn enemy of Israel, and analysts warn that if the nuclear talks here fail, Israel might bomb Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities.
The day before talks started here, Israel's Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon warned that Israel "could find itself facing the dilemma of a bomb, or to bomb."