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France says treating Iran's nuclear overture with caution

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius speaks to the United Nations Security Council after it voted unanimously in favor of a resolution era
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius speaks to the United Nations Security Council after it voted unanimously in favor of a resolution era

By John Irish and Nicholas Vinocur

PARIS (Reuters) - France is treating Iranian overtures to the international community over its nuclear program with caution and is waiting to see concrete proposals, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday.

The United States on Wednesday described two days of nuclear talks with Iran as the most serious to date after diplomats said Tehran hinted it was ready to scale back sensitive atomic activities to secure urgent sanctions relief.

But despite a more open exchange between Iran and the six world powers - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States - diplomats said no breakthrough had been achieved in the Geneva talks and many disagreements remained.

"We are waiting for substantive change," Fabius told parliament. "Given what he know on Iran, the Guide (Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) being the same, we are compelled to be cautiously open."

Paris has been one of the strongest advocates of sanctions to pressure Iran over its nuclear program. The United States and its allies suspect Iran is seeking nuclear bomb-making capability despite Tehran's insistence that its program has only peaceful aims.

French President Francois Hollande was the first Western leader to meet new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in September, warning that Paris expected "concrete gestures".

"It is too early to draw conclusions," Fabius said. "France will not mix up appearances with reality."

So far Iran has defied U.N. Security Council demands that it halt enrichment and other sensitive nuclear activities, leading to multiple rounds of crippling international sanctions that have reduced Iranian oil exports, caused inflation to soar and the value of the Iranian rial currency to plummet.

Speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the talks, a Western diplomat said the negotiations had been neither positive nor negative, but the major powers had been able to ask specific questions on key issues and received certain answers creating a basis to move forward.

"We can't say that we will find a solution in the coming weeks, but we now have a tool for a common exchange," he said. The fact that all the Iranian negotiators spoke English made life easier, he added.

The diplomat declined to detail what proposals had been discussed, saying the talks had entered "a serious phase".

Follow-up talks will be held in Geneva on November 7-8. Before that, nuclear and sanctions experts from both sides will meet to discuss in detail the main stumbling blocks.

"The objective is to have something more concrete by November. We have found a tool on the floor and now we want to see if it works," the diplomat said. "Let's see what these talks produce, but the idea is to go quickly, which is also what they want. We don't want it to last a year."

(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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