A defiant Iran said Friday its uranium enrichment drive was not up for debate as it met with world powers in Istanbul for fresh talks aimed at easing concerns that it is secretly developing atomic weapons.
"We will absolutely not allow the talks to go into the issue of our basic rights like the issue of suspending enrichment," Abolfazl Zohrevand, an aide to Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Said Jalili, told reporters.
He spoke after an Iranian delegation led by Jalili met with counterparts from the so-called P5+1 group of world powers, led by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, for two days of talks in Istanbul over Tehran's controversial nuclear program.
Zohrevand insisted that the meeting, held behind closed doors at a seafront Ottoman palace, had kicked off in a "positive" atmosphere.
"We will focus on cooperation. ... The talks have been positive because both sides have come to take positive steps," he said, without elaborating.
The official spoke in the yard of an Istanbul mosque where the Iranians went for Friday prayers during a break in the talks with the P5+1 group, comprising Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany.
It was the second round of talks after negotiations resumed last month in Geneva, breaking a 14-month hiatus.
Iran insists its nuclear program is solely for civilian purposes but has refused to suspend uranium enrichment, the sensitive process which can be used to make nuclear fuel or, in highly extended form, the fissile core of an atomic bomb.
Its defiance has prompted four sets of U.N. sanctions, coupled by a series of separate sanctions imposed unilaterally by the United States and the European Union.
The powers would however push Iran to consider a nuclear fuel swap proposal, designed to ease concerns over the Islamic republic's activities, said a Western diplomat familiar with the talks in Istanbul.
The swap "will be discussed in Istanbul," he said, but stressed the terms of the proposal, first discussed in 2009, should be modified.
Under the original draft, Iran would have received fuel for a medical research reactor in Tehran from France and Russia in return for shipping out most of its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium.
After a prolonged stalemate over the proposal, Brazil and Turkey brokered a modified deal in May. But the United States rejected it, arguing it failed to take into account additional uranium Iran enriched in the meantime, and led the U.N. Security Council in imposing a fourth package of sanctions.
Turkey, which voted against the sanctions and has refused to back a tougher line against its eastern neighbor, is only the host of the Istanbul talks but "is ready to step in if the two sides request its help," a Turkish diplomat said.
The United States stressed the need for Iran to engage in a "credible" process to dispel suspicions over its nuclear activities.
"We're not expecting any big breakthroughs," Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said in Washington ahead of the meeting.
"But we want to see a constructive process emerge that ... leads to Iran engaging with the international community in a credible process and engaging and addressing the international community's concerns about its nuclear program," he said.
On the eve of the talks, Russia — which for the past decade has been building Iran's sole nuclear power plant — called for talks on lifting the U.N. sanctions on Tehran, but the Western diplomat played down the idea Friday.
On Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a cheering crowd at home that Tehran would not back down from its nuclear program.
"You could not stop us from being nuclear. ... The Iranian nation will not retreat an inch. The nuclear issue is over from the Iranian point of view," he said.