VIENNA (AP) — With nine days to go, Iran still has not agreed on a location for talks with world powers over its nuclear program, Western officials said Wednesday but suggested Istanbul remained the most likely venue.
The officials — from the European Union and a Western country that will be at the planned meeting — dismissed calls from Tehran to hold the meeting in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or China as brinkmanship.
Iran's suggestions of alternative sites raised the possibility of complications to get talks under way as expected on April 13 between Iran and envoys from the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany. It also could bring accusations of stall tactics by Iran's leaders.
Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Wednesday that Istanbul was Iran's first choice as a venue. It has now been publicly cited by the U.S. and others as the site of the talks. But Salehi appeared to leave open the possibility, however small, that the negotiations could shift to another location.
"Holding talks in Baghdad, and also China, as venue has been out there," Salehi told reporters after a Cabinet meeting in Tehran. "This is a course that both sides need to agree on ... Istanbul was our initial proposal as the venue for the talks. The Europeans initially rejected but then agreed. At the same time, we had other countries in mind."
The possibility of other locations also was raised by Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guard commander and now spokesman of Iran's Expediency Council. On Monday, he suggested Baghdad, Damascus, or Beirut, Lebanon.
His comments reflected frustration with Turkey, a recent ally that has moved to reduce critical oil shipments from Iran and agreed to host a NATO defense shield radar that would send a warning if the Islamic Republic fires missiles.
Iran and Turkey also disagree on how to end the conflict in Syria, with Tehran rejecting Turkish calls that Syrian President Bashar Assad step aside.
"Given that our Turkish friends reneged on some agreements, it is better that Iran's talks ... are held in a friendly country. Therefore, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut are better venues for holding the talks compared to Istanbul," the semiofficial Fars news agency quoted Rezaei as saying.
Justifying his position, he reportedly said that the five powers planning to meet Iran "should not feel that Iran is in a weak position."
Iran is a Shiite theocracy and has strong ties with the Shiite or allied majorities controlling Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, while China has staunchly opposed increasing sanctions on Tehran to force it to compromise on its nuclear program.
Rezaei is not part of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government and his views don't represent Iran's official position. But the Expediency Council is an advisory body on key issues to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton is coordinating the planned talks, and an EU official said Wednesday there was some concern of a delay as the April 13 date nears.
He and a diplomat from one of the six countries said, however, that the talks would likely go ahead as planned in Istanbul, or possibly another venue in Switzerland, nothing that Iran has not formally proposed any alternate locations to Ashton's team.
Both of the men demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential information. They suggested Iran's floating of venues that are unacceptable to their interlocutors reflected not only a show of Iranian resolve ahead of the talks but also splits within hardliners and relative moderates who find Istanbul acceptable.
Iran and the six last met in Istanbul 14 months ago and left the negotiating table two days later unable even agree on what to talk about.
Tehran arrived to the talks saying it would not even consider freezing uranium enrichment and kept repeating that mantra. It also pushed two demands unacceptable to the six: a lifting of sanctions and acceptance of its enrichment program before any further discussion of its nuclear activities.
Iran says the expansion of its enrichment program is meant only to provide nuclear fuel, denies any interest in developing the atomic bomb, and says the right of countries to enrich nuclear power is enshrined in the Nonproliferation Treaty.
But the U.S. and others say Iran's nuclear record is causing concern. Tehran started enriching in secret, has refused offers of nuclear fuel shipments from abroad, and last year began enriching to higher levels that bring it closer to point where it could turn its program into producing fissile warhead material at an underground bunker that could be impervious to attack from the air.
In Baghdad, Iraq's foreign ministry said late Tuesday that Baghdad was proposed as a venue for talks during a meeting between an Iranian delegation and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. It said Zebari welcomed the proposal and promised to make the "necessary contacts" with relevant international parties.
Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the talks would take place in Istanbul. Clinton and other leaders met this week in Istanbul to seek ways to aid the Syrian opposition in their year-old rebellion against Assad's regime.
Clinton said the proposed talks would not be "an open-ended session" and made clear that time is running out for a diplomatic accord over Iran's nuclear ambitions. The negotiations also have taken on urgency amid speculation that Israel or the U.S. could take military action against Iran later this year.
Associated Press writers Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.