The five permanent veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, and Germany, have gathered in Switzerland for talks with Iran over its disputed nuclear programme. The EU delegation will be led by Javier Solana, the high representative of the EU.
|The US says Iran broke IAEA rules by not declaring its intent to build a second nuclear facility, shown above in a satellite image, near the city of Qom [EPA]
Saeed Jalili, the secretary of the Iranian supreme national security council and chief negotiator for nuclear Issues, will head the Iranian delegation.
Al Jazeera's Hamish MacDonald reports from Geneva where few observers expect a breakthrough.
When the foreign ministers from China, France, Germany, Russia, US, and UK sit down for talks with a high-level Iranian delegation in Geneva, it will be unlike any other meeting in decades.
This is the first time in almost 30 years that the US has met for direct, formal talks with Iran. For those who questioned whether Barack Obama, the US president, would live up to his promise to "engage", this is the evidence of his commitment.
In quiet meeting rooms here in Geneva, senior Iranian and US negotiators are sitting down to talk on Thursday about Iran's nuclear programme and specifically the nuclear plant Iran has built outside the city of Qom.
It has 3,000 centrifuges – too few, scientists say, to be part of civilian use programme to generate electricity, and too many for this to be a "test site".
Iran disclosed the construction of this second plant to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last week after Western intelligence agents reportedly discovered its existence.
But there has been disagreement over the legality of this site due to the different interpretations of the IAEA statutes and more importantly, which ones Iran has signed up to.
Iran says that it is obliged to notify the IAEA 180 days before introducing materials to a nuclear facility. In this instance it has done so 18 months before the site was completed, therefore exceeding the IAEA requirements.
Speaking in Tehran last week, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, said: "Now is this the right thing or the wrong thing to do? It is not a secret facility. If it was, why did we inform the IAEA a year ahead of time?"
Even as he insisted that Iran, as a sovereign state, did not need to report to Washington, Ahmadinejad said that Tehran would allow IAEA inspectors to visit the site.
However, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, disagrees.
An IAEA statute modified in 1992 states that "countries must notify inspectors as soon as a decision is made to build a nuclear plant".
Iran initially accepted these terms, but then withdrew in 2007 in protest at a decision by the UN Security Council to enforce punitive sanctions.
"Iran was supposed to inform us on the day it was decided to construct the facility. They have not done that," ElBaradei said earlier this week.
Nevertheless, in the lead-up to these talks, the Iranians have remained steadfast in their defiance, even suggesting they are not prepared to negotiate their "nuclear rights".
On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad said: "Of course we have prepared ourselves for any situation.The Iranian nation, throughout history, particularly over the last 30 years, has learned well how to stand on its feet and turn any situation into its advantage and benefit from that."
|At the UN, Ahmadinejad reiterated Iran's right to nuclear technology [REUTERS]
Those comments, along with Iran's decision to test fire its missile defence capabilities earlier this week have set the stage for some complex diplomacy. The US is clear about what it wants:
"We will demand that IAEA inspectors have unfettered access to the facility, to personnel, to documents surrounding the facility. There is no doubt this is in violation of their own obligations to which they are a party," said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary.
Few are expecting a breakthrough here in Geneva. The most hoped for in many quarters will be minor concessions and a promise to continue talks at later dates. And given the fraught history between Iran and the West, such steps may in themselves be solid achievements.