Ashton, Jalili hold ‘constructive’ four-hour dinner meeting

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European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton held a ‘useful and constructive’ four hour dinner meeting with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Istanbul Tuesday, at which he stressed Iran’s interest in continuing negotiations, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

Jalili made clear at the dinner, which stretched from 7:30pm until almost midnight, that the Iranians would like negotiations to continue, diplomats said. Ashton, for her part, would also like to move the process forward, but stressed to the Iranians that it’s time for them to get serious.

Also attending the dinner Tuesday–which was held at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul–were Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid, Iranian deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri, and Ashton’s chief of staff James Morrison. (Video of Ashton and team arriving at the Iranian consulate here.)

The Iranians avoided the hectoring and litany of complaints that had characterized the strained atmosphere at high level six nation talks with Iran held in Moscow in June. The informal dinner discussion deliberately did not focus, however, on the substantive details of the international dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.

Ashton heads to New York Saturday, where she will hold meetings on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly opening session with senior envoys from the P5+1 negotiating group–the United States, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China–on how to proceed.

It’s not yet clear if the six nations’ foreign ministers will meet as a group or if Ashton will hold some bilateral discussions giving readouts. Russia, for one, hasn’t yet agreed to a foreign minister-level meeting, sources said.

Jalili, speaking to a news conference in Istanbul Wednesday, said he and Ashton had agreed to confer after her discussions with the six powers in New York, Reuters reported.

Beyond the New York discussions, the path going forward is ‘open,’ as one western diplomat put it Wednesday, meaning yet to be agreed among the members of the P5+1. Without greater hope of progress, some capitals, including Washington, had recently opposed holding another round of high-level political director talks with Iran, at least in the near term. (France had also expressed reservations about Ashton holding the dinner meeting with Jalili.)

Ashton was returning to Brussels from Istanbul Wednesday, after meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

(Photo: European Council TV Newsroom.)