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Can Iran, world powers build on recent progress in nuclear talks?

Tomorrow's 'technical-level' meeting in Istanbul will give a quieter, closed-door venue for six world powers and Iran to try to turn diplomatic progress into concrete measures.

By Staff writer / March 17, 2013



Istanbul, Turkey; and Washington

Experts of Iran and six world powers will meet behind closed doors in Istanbul, Turkey, tomorrow for “technical-level” nuclear talks aimed at turning recent diplomatic progress into concrete measures. 

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Diplomats on both sides say the low-profile technical meeting can be ideal for thrashing out details and a timeline for the first steps to limit Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work, ahead of a fifth round of top-level nuclear talks in early April.

The technical meeting comes as President Obama travels this week to the Middle East, where Iran’s nuclear program – and Israel’s consideration of any future Iranian nuclear weapon to be an “existential threat” – will be high on the agenda.

On the table in Istanbul will be a revised proposal by the six world powers that requires Iran to “suspend” but not permanently halt its 20 percent uranium enrichment, and to disable work at the deeply buried Fordow facility, in exchange for modest relief from sanctions.

That offer was put to Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan, late last month, and is an easing of a first proposal – described at the time as “maximalist” by Western diplomats – put to Iran last spring.

The easing of demands has been hailed by Iran as a potential “change of strategy” and “turning point” conceded by the P5+1 group (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany), which Iran argues amounted to recognition that it would not cave in to crippling sanctions.

Breakthroughs not just in big meetings

Beyond the glare of the spotlight that accompanies each full round of nuclear talks, the technical meeting can yield real results. After the last such Istanbul technical meeting in July, for example – despite three failed previous rounds of political talks in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow last spring – Iran for the first time formally said its 20 percent enrichment was up for negotiation. 

This time, the P5+1 will be looking for signs that Iran is willing to begin to physically curb that level of enrichment, in exchange for a specified timetable to ease some of the sanctions that have choked Iran’s economy.

“The regime is in some ways cautious, but has also made a lot of mistakes because it has invited so much pressure on itself,” says Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the RAND Corporation in Washington.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s frequent anti-Israel statements and denial of the Holocaust, especially, have done “tremendous damage” by adding impetus to the Western push for sanctions, which has even prompted criticism by Iran’s former nuclear negotiators and senior diplomats, says Mr. Nader.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said last week: “To put the honesty of the Western states to [the] test, we must wait until the next meeting with the P5+1 group.”

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