GENEVA, Oct. 1 -- The United States and Iran tentatively stepped back from looming confrontation on Thursday, as the Islamic republic reached an agreement with major powers that would greatly reduce Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium and reset the diplomatic clock for a solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The outcome, which President Obama in Washington called a "constructive beginning," came after 7 1/2 hours of talks in an 18th-century villa on the outskirts of Geneva that included the highest-level bilateral meeting between the two countries since relations were severed three decades ago after the Iranian revolution. But the difficulties that lie ahead were illustrated when the chief Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, held a triumphant news conference at which he denounced "media terrorism," insisted that Iran has always fully met its international commitments, and refused even to acknowledge a question from an Israeli reporter.
The sudden show of cooperation by Tehran reduces for now the threat of additional sanctions, which has been made repeatedly by the United States and others over the past week after the revelation of a secret Iranian nuclear facility. The United States will need to keep the pressure on Iran to avoid being dragged into a process without end.
Under the tentative deal, Iran would give up most of its enriched uranium to Russia in order for it to be converted into desperately needed material for a medical research reactor in Tehran. Iran also agreed to let international inspectors visit the newly disclosed uranium-enrichment facility in Qom within two weeks, and then to attend another meeting with negotiators from the major powers by the end of the month. The series of agreements struck at the meeting was in itself unusual because, in the past, the Iranian negotiators have said they would get back with an answer -- and then fail to do so.
U.S. and other diplomats present at the talks said the tone of the Iranian delegation privately was not different from the public posture, with much of the morning devoted to lengthy exchanges of official talking points. But they said the mood shifted subtly after the participants broke for lunch. The chief U.S. negotiator, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns, spent 45 minutes in a small sitting room with Jalili while the other diplomats gathered in the back yard of the Villa Le Saugy, admiring the views of the Swiss Alps and Lake Geneva as they mingled in small groups and ate from a cold buffet of fish and salads.
The negotiators -- including diplomats from Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union -- never returned to the conference table but continued huddling in a rotating series of groups to structure the agreements.
The outcome of the talks was immediately criticized by former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton, who as a Bush administration official balked at George W. Bush's efforts to entice Iran into negotiations. "They've now got the United States ensnared in negotiations," he said. "This is like the movie 'Groundhog Day.' " But another Bush-era official, former undersecretary of state R. Nicholas Burns, said that even if talks fail, Obama will have demonstrated that he tried hard to make diplomacy work -- and will win greater support for sanctions.
Despite the drama of sudden movement on an issue that has been in stalemate for seven years, all sides agreed that they are months, even years away from a resolution. The ultimate U.S. goal is suspension of Iran's uranium-enrichment activities -- and Tehran insists that it will never take that step.
"This is only a start, and we shall need to see progress through some of the practical steps we have discussed today," said European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who headed the delegation of six nations meeting with Iran. He said he hoped for "rapid and intense" negotiations to follow.
U.S. officials have asserted that the revelation of the Qom facility had diplomatically isolated Iran, leaving it little choice but to cooperate or face new sanctions. Diplomats said the term "sanctions" was never uttered during the lengthy day, though oblique reference was made to a statement issued by foreign ministers of the group last week. That statement raised the possibility of more sanctions if no negotiating track was soon established.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki -- who was given a rare visa by the Obama administration to visit Washington on Wednesday -- told reporters in New York that Iran is not building any other nuclear facilities, saying the "only case under construction is Qom." He said that the Geneva talks took place in a "constructive" atmosphere and that Iran is committed to continuing negotiations with the six powers, including the possibility of a future presidential summit. But he also made it clear that Iran would not yield to pressure to suspend its enrichment of uranium.
The agreement concerning the medical reactor was unexpected, and U.S. officials cast it both as a way to respond to a pressing Iranian need and to extend the time available to hold negotiations. "It is a confidence-building measure which will, to some extent, alleviate tension and buy some more diplomatic space to pursue the more fundamental problem of Iran's nuclear program," said one senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in an interview last week with The Washington Post and Newsweek, said he was seeking international assistance to fuel the reactor, which is closely observed by international inspectors and produces medical isotopes to help detect and treat diseases. He said the reactor, which requires uranium enriched to 19.75 percent, is running out of fuel because countries had refused to sell it to Iran.
In the meantime, Iran's Natanz reactor has accumulated enough low-enriched uranium gas that it, in theory, could convert it to enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon. Under the tentative agreement, U.S. officials said, Iran would export most of its 3,300 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Russia, which would then convert it to the material needed for the reactor. France would also assist in fabricating the material into metallic rods for use in the medical reactor.
Officials said the removal of the low-enriched uranium from Iranian soil should lessen concerns -- particularly in Israel -- that time was running out for a negotiated solution. Russia has long offered to enrich uranium for Iran, an idea never fully embraced by either Iran or the Bush administration, but U.S. officials insisted that the deal was not intended as a template for a future solution.
Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, Iran is prohibited from exporting nuclear material, so a new resolution would probably need to be approved for the deal to go through.
Obama said at the White House that the United States has "entered a phase of intensive international negotiations" and warned that "pledges of cooperation must be fulfilled." He also said Iran now has "a path towards a better relationship with the United States."
The conversation between Burns, the American negotiator, and Jalili was described by one U.S. official as "direct and candid." It focused mostly on the nuclear issue but also included a "frank exchange" on human rights. Several other U.S. officials also took the opportunity to meet one-on-one with Iranian counterparts, with one raising the case of three American hikers being held in Iran.
Fifteen months ago, Burns was in Geneva at a similar meeting but, under rules set by the Bush administration, was barely permitted to speak and was ordered to avoid contact with Jalili. This time, the depth and length of their conversation may have been unusual in the annals of U.S.-Iranian diplomatic discourse, but Jalili did not seem to make much note of it. Asked about the conversation, he simply said he had spoken individually to many of the diplomats at the meeting.
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Anne E. Kornblut in Washington contributed to this report.