Is Iran's proposal to hold nuke talks in Syria, Iraq, or China brinksmanship?
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 UN Security Council members and Germany.
With nine days to go,Â IranÂ still has not agreed on a location for talks with world powers over itsÂ nuclearÂ program, Western officials said Wednesday but suggested Istanbul remained the most likely venue.
The officials â€” from the European Union and a Western country that will be at the planned meeting â€” dismissed calls from Tehran to hold the meeting in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or China as brinkmanship.
Iran'sÂ suggestions of alternative sites raised the possibility of complications to get talks under way as expected on April 13 betweenÂ IranÂ and envoys from the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany. It also could bring accusations of stall tactics byÂ Iran'sÂ leaders.
Iran'sÂ foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Wednesday that Istanbul wasÂ Iran'sÂ 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 ofÂ Iran'sÂ 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 fromÂ IranÂ and agreed to host a NATO defense shield radar that would send a warning if the Islamic Republic fires missiles.
IranÂ 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 thatÂ Iran'sÂ 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 meetÂ IranÂ "should not feel thatÂ Iranis in a weak position."
IranÂ 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 itsnuclearÂ program.
Rezaei is not part of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government and his views don't representÂ Iran'sofficial position. But the Expediency Council is an advisory body on key issues toÂ Iran'sÂ 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 thatÂ IranÂ has not formally proposed any alternate locations to Ashton's team.
Both of the men demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential information. They suggestedIran'sÂ 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.
IranÂ 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 itsÂ nuclearÂ activities.
IranÂ says the expansion of its enrichment program is meant only to provideÂ nuclearÂ fuel, denies any interest in developing the atomic bomb, and says the right of countries to enrichÂ nuclearÂ power is enshrined in the Nonproliferation Treaty.
But the U.S. and others sayÂ Iran'sÂ nuclearÂ record is causing concern. Tehran started enriching in secret, has refused offers ofÂ nuclearÂ 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.
The independent Iranian news and analysis website, irannuc.ir, said Ali Bagheri,Â Iran'sÂ deputyÂ nuclearnegotiator, suggested Baghdad as the venue. The website saidÂ IranÂ considers Turkey an inappropriate host because of its hostile position toward the Syrian regime.
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 overÂ Iran'sÂ nuclearÂ ambitions. The negotiations also have taken on urgency amid speculation that Israel or the U.S. could take military action againstÂ IranÂ later this year.