The first direct talks between the United States and Iran over its nuclear program in more than a year concluded in Geneva on Tuesday with an agreement for another meeting next month in Istanbul but no substantive progress, according to participants.
While Teheran had said it refused to discuss its nuclear program going into the discussions, Western sources said a significant amount of time was devoted to the issue, which is the international community's key concern. The talks also lasted two days despite earlier Iranian statements that their delegation would leave after the first day.
Though the US and Iran held brief conversations on the sidelines of the talks, they did not hold a formal bilateral meeting, as they had during negotiations held last year in Geneva, nor did they strike any deals. Last year, the sides agreed to ship some of Iran's enriched uranium abroad but Teheran never made good on the agreement.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton characterized the talks "detailed" and "substantive." But The Washington Post quoted one senior US official in Geneva described the interaction as "difficult and candid," with a fair amount of "Iranian venting and posturing." The report also assessed that "70 to 80 percent" of the three hours of Monday morning's meetings were devoted to the nuclear issues, as Iranians listened to Western powers bring up the issue.
"We didn't get anywhere on substance," said an official from a delegation at the meeting. "It was an exchange of views."
But US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley did say in Washington Tuesday, "We are encouraged that there will be a follow-on meeting" in January.
At the same time, the international powers engaging with Iran – the US, Russia, China, France, England and Germany – also seemed to make a concession by agreeing that the next round of discussions would be held in Istanbul. Iran originally wanted this week's talks held there, following Turkish help reviving the earlier enrichment deal as strict sanctions were about to be imposed by the UN last summer, but the other powers insisted they be in Europe.
Expectations were low coming into the meeting, particularly after Iran announced that it produced yellowcake from its own mining of uranium, sending the message that it wasn't dependent on any outside authority for gaining nuclear capabilities.
"Our expectations for these talks were low, and they were never exceeded," said one US official.
Still, Washington Institute for Near East Policy expert Patrick Clawson was able to point to some silver linings.
"The US wanted indications that Iran was going to seriously engage about its nuclear program," he said. "Every indication is that we have that."
He pointed to Iran officials' willingness to have the nuclear topic broached, its decision to participate for two days and its agreement on a venue and time frame for a next meeting.
But he cautioned against too much optimism.
"There were no signs there was substantive progress on reaching an agreement, [but] they're talking."
Talking, though, struck Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council as potentially a sign of losing rather than gaining ground.
"Iran had made clear that it wasn't prepared to negotiate over its nuclear program in the session. This was, instead, a talk about having more talks. It also fits neatly into Iran's larger strategy of negotiating to buy time until it crosses the nuclear threshold," he said.
"The Obama administration seems intent on playing Iran's game," he charged, warning that its approach could mean that "dialogue with the Islamic Republic will lead to a slackening of sanctions – at least temporarily. That is clearly what Iran wants."
Clawson credited sanctions with helping convince the Iranians to come back to the table and take a more constructive approach than it has during the 14 months since the last Geneva meeting.
"When the Iranians see the international community is united, they are much more likely to make concessions and work out a compromise."
Yet the Iranians continued to sound a defiant note on Tuesday.
"I am telling you clearly and openly that halting uranium enrichment will not be discussed at the Istanbul meeting," Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, told reporters. "We reject the idea of talks under pressure."
AP contributed to this report.