Crunch talks between Iran and world powers opened in Baghdad on Wednesday aimed at defusing the long-running escalating crisis over Tehran's nuclear programme, an official said.
The P5+1 powers -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- hope to persuade Iran to suspend some the most worrying parts of its activities but Tehran wants to see sanctions eased in return.
Iran's lead nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, sees a chance to open a "new era" in ties with Washington and other world powers at Baghdad talks on its atomic programme, Iranian media reported.
"Since the foundation of these talks is based on cooperation, the negotiations between the seven nations will cover international, regional and nuclear issues, and we hope this will be a beginning of a new era", Jalili was quoted as telling an Iraqi Shiite political party head, Ammar al-Hakim, in Baghdad late Tuesday.
Jalili is to sit down in the Iraqi capital with representatives of P5+1 states for talks on international concerns over Iran's nuclear activities.
The Western nations fear the programme includes a drive a develop atomic weapons, and they have imposed increasingly harsh sanctions on Tehran to pressure it to suspend its nuclear activities.
Iran, though, maintains its nuclear ambitions are exclusively peaceful and says it has successfully withstood the sanctions.
"We sense that the West has realised that the time for using its pressure strategy is over", Jalili was quoted as saying by the Fars and Mehr news agencies.
"We hope that the Baghdad negotiations are a starting point for the P5+1 to put away some of their fruitless strategies," he told Hakim.
Ahead of the talks, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted on Wednesday that Islam forbids atomic weapons and other arms of mass destruction.
"Based on Islamic teachings and the clear fatwa (edict) of the supreme leader, the production and use of weapons of mass destruction is haram (forbidden) and have no place in the Islamic Republic of Iran's defence doctrine," he said.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has spoken out againt nuclear weapons on several occasions, most recently February 22 when he said that possessing an atomic bomb "constitutes a major sin".
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that world powers expect Tehran to back up that position by demonstrating "clearly in the actions they propose that they have truly abondoned any nuclear weapons ambition."
The United States has seized on Khamenei's stance as a possible basis to resolve the dangerous standoff with Iran.
The P5+1 and Iran met in Istanbul in mid-April and managed to find enough common ground to come to Baghdad, with both sides hailing what they said was a fresh approach from the other.
But the Baghdad meeting will put these renewed efforts to the test as they seek to set the parameters of what will be a lengthy and arduous process of compromise requiring hitherto unseen amounts of patience and trust.
One key way for Iran to win the confidence of the P5+1 will be a suspension of 20-percent enrichment, while another would be Iran shipping its stockpiles of enriched uranium abroad.
What might also help is Iran implementing the additional protocol (AP) of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which allows for more intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The IAEA also wants Iran to address allegations made in its November report that until 2003, and possibly since, Tehran had a "structured programme" of "activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device."
IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said on Tuesday after talks in Tehran that a deal on ways to go over these accusations with the Iranians would be signed "quite soon."
The White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the reaction of anti-nuclearization bloc in Iran – mainly the United States and Israel -- "will make judgments about Iran's behaviour based on actions."
US President Barack Obama, seeking re-election in November against a Republican challenger accusing him of dawdling over Iran and keen to see oil prices come down, is impatient for results, while Iran is feeling the pinch from the sanctions.
But Iran will likely be disappointed in Baghdad if it expects sanctions relief in return for any of these moves, with the most it can hope for being a pledge -- with strings attached -- not to impose any more, diplomats said.
Reports said that the P5+1 worked out a detailed proposal to put on the table that would include Iran shipping out uranium in return for fuel for a reactor making medical isotopes.
The Financial Times reported that Western powers were prepared to offer Iran an "oil carrot" that would allow it to continue supplying crude to Asian customers in exchange for certain guarantees.
It is however far from certain that any firm promises will be made by either side in Baghdad, with one envoy playing down expectations by saying that even if the talks go well, the results might not be "tangible."
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak urged world powers not to waver in key talks with Iran , warning that any failure to halt enrichment would see Tehran obtain a nuclear weapon.
"In Baghdad, we must watch out that partial concessions do not allow Iran to avoid a tightening of sanctions," he said, just hours before the start of a second round of talks between Tehran and six world powers in the Iraqi capital.
"Without strengthening the current painful sanctions, Iran will continue towards a nuclear capability," the defence minister told Israel's public radio.
"We must not blink, give up or capitulate until the very last minute," he said.
"If they let them continue, Iran will keep on enriching uranium from 20 percent to 60 percent and 90 percent and they really will get a nuclear weapon. I don't know exactly when but it will happen," he warned.
"Now is the time for the entire world to stop them," said Barak.
In a related development, Ahmadinejad will visit Beijing next month, a spokesman for the Islamic republic's embassy said Wednesday, amid an escalating crisis over Tehran's nuclear programme.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will also attend the June 6-7 gathering, to be chaired by China's President Hu Jintao, a close ally of Tehran and a member of the P5+1 group.