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Iran nuclear talks in Istanbul show progress remains elusive

Talks in Istanbul today over Iran's nuclear program and sanctions that have crippled its economy yielded little in the way of progress.

By Staff writer / May 15, 2013

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili (c.) arrives at the Iranian Consulate before his meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, in Istanbul, May 15.

Osman Orsal/Reuters

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Istanbul

Even before the top two nuclear negotiators from Iran and six world powers sat down to a rare shared dinner in Istanbul tonight, events showed how far apart they are as they wrestle over how to limit Iran’s nuclear program. 

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The first face-to-face contact in six weeks since both sides talked intensely in the Kazakh city of Almaty, appear to have yielded little of the rethink that both sides demanded of each other, when their only point of agreement was that they remained “far apart” on key issues.

The EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, representing the so-called P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany), came to Istanbul in “listening mode,” and with a demand that Iran put more on the table or risk the end of talks.

"This is not a negotiating meeting, but it is an opportunity to take time to consider further the good proposals we have put forward," she said in a statement.

Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili – now a presidential candidate in Iran’s June 14 election – said today that Iran expected a clear response to the “balanced” counter-proposals it put forward in Almaty in early April. The P5+1 had, he said, asked for several days to respond. “We believe that this opportunity has been long,” said Mr. Jalili, according to the semi-official Mehr News agency. “We should not pre-judge and wait for their response.”

In Washington just hours before Ms. Ashton's dinner with Jalili, the senior US negotiator on Iran, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, testified to lawmakers that “the onus is on Iran.”

“We are looking for signs that Iran is prepared to move to address substantively all aspects of the proposal we discussed in Almaty,” Ms. Sherman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She said Iran’s initial response to the P5+1 offer in Almaty was “very disappointing" and “would place little or no constraint on its current nuclear activities, while demanding that major sanctions be removed immediately.”

Sherman suggested that Ashton carried an ultimatum for Iran, that if Iran did not take significant steps then the P5+1 negotiating process would end. 

As if using the same script in reverse, Jalili and Iranian officials said they expected action first from the P5+1, to improve on the P5+1’s modest offer of partial sanctions relief in exchange for Iran suspending key elements of its nuclear program.

Action?

Iran described the counterproposal it put forward in Almaty as a “plan of action” meant to create “forward movement” in a nuclear negotiating process that so far has seen five full-scale rounds of talks with little result since April 2012.

Iran says it wants to know the endgame: that when negotiations are done, if it caps its nuclear program to prevent any future bid for a nuclear weapon, it will get in return a lifting of sanctions that have crippled its economy and and that its “right” to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes will be recognized.

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