Iran and six world powers weren’t able to seal a deal to curb the Islamic Republic’s disputed nuclear program on the first of two days of talks, which ended with the two sides still far apart.
The optimistic tone officials struck at the close of a previous round of negotiations in Almaty, Kazakhstan, six weeks ago faded last night as contradictory signals emerged from Iran and the six nations negotiating with the Islamic Republic.
Diplomats from the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China met with Iranian officials for more than five hours yesterday. The Iranians met separately with the Chinese, Russian, British and German delegates, and the full group will convene again today, officials said.
Iran’s deputy negotiator said that his side had offered “practical” suggestions to resolve the nuclear dispute, and the head of Russia’s delegation, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, called the Islamic Republic’s response “refreshing.”
Western diplomats complained that Iran failed to respond to the specifics of a confidence-building proposal made six weeks ago that would ease some economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran’s curbing uranium enrichment.
A failure to make progress in this second round of negotiations in Kazakhstan would bring new pressure on Iran. The Islamic Republic, already subject to dozens of international sanctions on oil, banking, trade and shipping, will face additional economic penalties if it fails to work toward a deal, U.S. officials said. Israel and the U.S. have also threatened to use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Iran, with the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves, has threatened to stop crude shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if attacked.
Commodity markets so far haven’t reacted to the stalemate. Oil rose to a nine-month high of $119 a barrel on Feb. 8 on concern that tension with Iran would disrupt Middle East oil exports. Prices subsequently have declined as signs of a wider conflict eased.
Brent crude for May settlement declined $2.22, or 2.1 percent, to end the session at $104.12 a barrel on the London- based ICE Futures Europe exchange, the lowest closing price since July 24. Trading was 79 percent above the 100-day average.
While Iran has sought a broad lifting of the sanctions saddling its economy, world powers have offered an interim deal: a partial easing of the restrictions in return for Iran halting its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity. Iran says it needs the medium-enriched uranium for isotopes to treat cancer patients, while other nations have said that the uranium could easily be further enriched to create weapons-grade material.
It may be difficult for leaders in Tehran to offer concessions because of Iranian national pride in the nuclear science program and sunk costs estimated at $100 billion and rising, according to a study by researchers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
Iran wants to define the “final outcome” of the international negotiations, Ali Bagheri, deputy secretary of Iran’s supreme national security council, told reporters yesterday afternoon. The six powers entered the talks seeking “concrete” responses to the confidence-building proposal made six weeks ago, European Union spokesman Michael Mann said.
Iran didn’t respond to the international community’s proposal, and instead reiterated its desire for a comprehensive nuclear resolution, according to Western officials at the talks.
Russian delegate Ryabkov appeared to contradict the U.S. and Western European position, saying it was “an indisputable fact” that the Iranian delegation “addressed concrete elements of the position outlined by the group of six.” The Iranian reply, he said, was “evidence that the negotiations are serious.”
“We are not going over the same things and that’s refreshing,” he said. Still, Ryabkov declined to predict how the meeting would end.
One Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while the two sides had a long and substantial discussion, they remain far apart.
Failure to produce some interim deal in Almaty could stall further talks, fueling an escalation of sanctions and military threats, according to analyst Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
“Time for peaceful pressure is running out,” said Dubowitz, who advises U.S. lawmakers on sanctions. “If the Almaty talks fail, Congress likely will move forward on new sanctions that will massively intensify the economic pressure on Iran.”
In an interview on the sidelines of the talks in Almaty, Ali Vaez, a senior analyst with the Washington-based International Crisis Group, said that “in the absence of concrete progress,” international negotiators “can’t sustain this process for much longer.”
While receiving formal recognition of its “right” to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes isn’t a precondition at the meeting in Almaty, Iran wants to know that right will be recognized eventually, said an Iranian official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Iran’s insistence on knowing the “endgame” rather than making an interim agreement first, puts the talks at risk, Vaez said. In conversations with Iranian officials, he said he had advised agreement “on a limited deal that would break this vicious cycle.”
Enriched uranium is used to power electric power plants and make medical isotopes. Highly enriched uranium, or HEU, is needed to produce nuclear weapons.
After a decade-long standoff, during which agreements to continue talking were defined as success, both sides remain entrenched. A United Nations investigation, international sanctions, military threats and diplomacy all have failed to ease international concerns that Iran is developing the ability to make nuclear weapons.
Iran, with 75 million people and a $484 billion economy, has maintained that its program is peaceful and within the boundaries of the international nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, called the previous Almaty negotiating round a “turning point” after its Feb. 27 conclusion. Ryabkov said in an interview during those talks that the group offered to ease restrictions on Iran’s exports of petrochemical products and some additional items.
Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview that Iran’s willingness to adopt confidence-building measures such as greater access for UN inspectors or unilateral steps to make its enriched uranium less useful for a weapons program is a test of “whether talks are worth continuing.”
Bagheri of Iran said yesterday that “actions referred to as confidence-building measures must be considered part of a larger, more comprehensive plan. They are not separate.”
“The credibility of the process itself is on the line this time around,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in an e-mail interview from the United Arab Emirates. “I think we need the win more than” the Iranians “do, despite the presumptions to the contrary among many U.S. policy makers.”
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, a member of the country’s nuclear negotiating team, said the diplomatic process should be expected to move slowly and be fraught with challenges. Iran should be rewarded with the lifting of sanctions along the way or it won’t continue on the path, Araghchi said.
“If there is balance between steps to be taken by the two sides, we likely will be able to start a new approach, and this new trend will be long and will require many steps,” he was quoted as saying in an interview with the state-run Mehr news agency. “There are great obstacles” that require “patience and resistance” to overcome, he said.
“President Obama says that there is an open door in front of Iran, but the Iranians are very skeptical,” said Trita Parsi, author of “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran” and president of National Iranian-American Council. “Even if an agreement can be reached on 20 percent, Iran is not likely to accept unless it has clarity on what the end game is.”