Iran nuclear talks with US, other powers stall in Vienna

A round of talks on Iran's nuclear program in Vienna, at which the US and other powers were hoping to nail down a deal, faltered on Tuesday.

Hans Punz/AP
Iran's Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh walks past media Tuesday during a meeting of delegates from Iran, the US, Russia, and France, at Vienna's International Center.

Iranian negotiators played it tough on the second day of "brass tacks" talks on their nuclear program Tuesday. Some diplomats had been hoping for a breakthrough, with a deal sealed to send a large portion of Iran's nuclear fuel abroad for further processing. Instead, Iran appeared to shift the playing field.

In particular, the Iranian delegation objected to French participation in the plan to ship nuclear fuel out of the country -- something that Iran had appeared to agree to at the start of October -- and delayed the formal meeting all day.

Finally in the evening, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohammed Elbaradi managed to coax Iranian officials to a set of intensive talks with the US, and later on they met with all of the delegations for a round of negotiations that remained inconclusive by 10 pm.

Mr. Elbaradi, who leaves office next month, is thought to see the historic talks as part of his legacy. On Tuesday he said only that nuclear negotiations were "making progress" and that a deal is still "possible." He didn't elaborate further.

The Vienna negotiations are part of the Obama administration's strategy to give Iran a chance to abide by international rules designed to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Though Iran insists that its nuclear program is only for civilian power, the White House has given Iran a finite amount of time to show "good faith" following a historic Oct. 1 Geneva meeting that saw the US and Iran meet directly for the first time in decades, as a senior US diplomat put it. US

"We want to see if the Iranians can move past the general to the specific," a Western diplomat in Vienna said. President Barack Obama stands to benefit greatly if concrete concessions can be negotiated, though analysts say Iran can also benefit if it averts sanctions.

White House critics

Tuesday's delay in progress may fuel critics of President Obama's engagement strategy at home. Hard-liners like former United Nation's Ambassador John Bolton have called the talks "naïve" and charge that Iran is only playing for time, with no interest in acquiescing to additional safe-guards on its nuclear program.

There was definitely some foot dragging. Delegates from Russia, Iran, the US and France entered the main meeting room at the IAEA center in Vienna at 10 am, but they walked out shortly thereafter, with the delegations retreating to the warren of rooms underneath the main hall, signalling an impasse. Talks were set to reconvene at noon, then 1 pm, then 4:30, then 7, and then 8 – and did not resume until 8:30.

In the Geneva agreement, Russia would reprocess most of Iran's stock of low-enriched uranium (LEU) into a highly enriched form that could power a nuclear reactor but is still well below the point at which it could fuel a nuclear bomb. The material would then be shipped to France, which would convert it into fuel rods that Iran says it needs to run an aging reactor in Tehran that was built with US assistance in the 1970s and produces nuclear material for medicine and other civilian uses.

The deal is regarded as win-win, since the process would take Iran's nuclear stockpile off the table for a substantial period and Iran would be accorded a measure of credit as a responsible power – and current tensions over how the international community should respond to a nation that only recently admitted to another secret centrifuge plant near Qom, would be delayed. IAEA inspectors say they will visit the Qom plant Oct. 25.

Glaring headlines

Yet on Tuesday the Vienna atmospherics were upstaged by glaring headlines out of Tehran. Iran's foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki singled out France as "an untrustworthy party," widely seen as retribution against France for taking a leading position against Iranian violations of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and for being a champion for sanctions. In 1975, when Iran was still ruled by the Shah, Iran bought 10% in French uranium processor Eurodif to secure a supply of nuclear fuel. Since the Islamic revolution, France has not delivered any fuel to Iran and the country's negotiators say this means they can't trust French involvement in any new deals.

One solution to Iranian objections to French participation discussed during the day would allow the Russians to subcontract Phase Two of the nuclear reprocessing to the French without specifically making reference to the French work in any final contract. When asked if the Iranians were showing a new openness to talks, a French diplomat said, "It is difficult to say if the Iranian approach is different. We judge by results."

Iran's top diplomat in Tehran also attempted to stake out the high ground by claiming that Iran's presence in Vienna is itself proof that Iran is a responsible power, and that it will "never abandon its legal and obvious right" to pursue the peaceful use of nuclear power.

On Monday, Tehran said that if talks failed Iran would begin to reprocess on its own – and also accused the US and UK of having a hidden hand in the bloody suicide attack on its Revolutionary Guard in western Iran that killed over 30 people, a charge both countries promptly denied.

Diplomats in Vienna said that Iran typically is a tough interlocutor, and stressed the historic nature of talks that were inconceivable only a few years ago. Iran was earlier in the decade labeled a member of an "axis of evil" by US President George W. Bush. Talks between Iran and the US had to wait for both US and Iranian elections. Some diplomats here said they weren't possible any earlier, and that instant results were unrealistic.

Some diplomats in Vienna felt that neither the Iranian nor the Russian delegates were senior enough to warrant a final deal. While the Obama team includes deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman, the Iranian team is made up of its Vienna based UN diplomats, led by Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh. This does not mean a binding agreement can't be achieved, said IAEA officials, "but there is at least one further step that would be required," said one.

"The level of the Iranian team is not high," said a Western diplomat associated with one of the teams.

Iranian analyst Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington argues there is not yet enough "internal consensus" in Tehran "on significant divides" between different factions to make substantial progress.

Could Israel take unilateral action against Iran's nuclear program if talks fail?

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