Hope for swift progress on a nuclear deal with Tehran faded dramatically today, as world powers presented Iran with a list of stringent demands to curb its uranium enrichment but offered little sanctions relief in return.
Iranian officials said the new offer reaches beyond the step-by-step and "reciprocal" process agreed in the first round of talks in Istanbul last month, which along with positive signals from both sides had generated high expectations for Baghdad.
"The response from the Iranian side is: 'What you are asking for is ... not what we agreed to in Istanbul,' " an Iranian diplomat close to the talks told the Monitor, referring to the demands of six world powers that include Iran capping uranium enrichment and scrapping a deeply buried facility.
Steps were meant to be “reciprocal, simultaneous, and ... balanced” in their value to each side, says the Iranian diplomat. Instead, Iran was told there would be “consideration” of easing sanctions “later,” after Iran made concessions.
The Iranian reaction to the proposal indicates that a serious disconnect remains between Tehran and global powers about finding the right formula for curbing Iran's nuclear work, and locking in guarantees that it will not weaponize.
That disconnect surprises Iran experts, after years in which both sides have made clear their priorities. Mr. Jalili in Istanbul was reported to have been "relentless" in requesting European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to ease sanctions.
"Iran cannot be expected to make big concessions for the sake of a pittance," says Kaveh Afrasiabi, a former adviser to Iranian nuclear negotiation teams from 2004-06. "The talks can achieve concrete progress only if there is symmetry of compromise on both sides and, unfortunately, the West seems disinclined to observe the rule of mutual reciprocity," says Mr. Afrasiabi, now in Cambridge, MA. "Such a hard-line approach is not conducive to successful talks."
Ms. Ashton, speaking on behalf of the P5+1 group (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) laid out the proposal to Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili in the first session of the talks in Baghdad today.
The P5+1 offer requires Iran to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and "immediately" halt uranium enrichment to 20 percent – a level not technically far from weapons-grade of 90 percent – and to ship its stockpile out of the country, according to the Iranian diplomat.
"We are ready to have a compromise on that [20 percent enrichment], as long as it is a step-by-step process," says the diplomat.
But suspending all enrichment – including the lowest levels for reactor fuel – is a red line that Iran says it will never accept. Officials frequently cite Iran's "right" to enrich as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
The P5+1 offer also wants Iran to shut down its Fordow enrichment facility, which is buried under a mountain and is under safeguard by United Nations nuclear agency inspectors, but impregnable from US or Israeli attack. Iran's state-run IRNA news agency called the package "outdated, not comprehensive, and unbalanced."
Doubts about the legality of imposing such steps were expressed to Iran by some P5+1 members during private discussions, the Iranian diplomat said.
Some of those measures have long been considered part of an eventual deal, and a number of incentives are apparently part of the P5+1 offer. But those incentives do not include the quid pro quo Iran expected – easing the US, UN, and European Union sanctions that have targeted Iran's central bank, SWIFT access, and exports of oil, the lifeblood of the Iranian economy.
"This is what we were afraid of," says the Iranian diplomat. "No one is going to accept these things this way. The 20 percent and shutting down Fordow, in return for nothing? Nothing?"
Another Iranian official told Agence France Presse that world powers had to "revise" the offer, or risk an end to nuclear diplomacy. "The points of agreement are not yet sufficient for another round," the official said on condition of anonymity.
"We believe that the two parties must agree on common points to merit a new round of negotiations," the official told AFP, adding that "the Western parties want to continue these negotiations at any cost. This is not our position."
Western official: Proposals 'of interest to Iran'
The tension contrasts with the unusually positive atmospherics prior to the Baghdad round, as deputies from both sides met twice to work on an agenda.
"Last time they said the right things, in the right way," said a Western diplomat prior to the start of talks. "This time they are saying the right things, in the right way, with the right details."
On the eve of the talks, however, American and European diplomats were reported to have ruled out any quick sanctions relief for Iran, regardless of the steps Tehran might take.
"Just hope the Iranians are not deluding themselves they are going to get sanctions relief now – that's not going to happen at this stage," a Western official told Laura Rozen, according to a piece in Al Monitor yesterday.
In Baghdad, Western officials were more circumspect.
"We have a new offer on the table which addresses our main concerns about the Iranian nuclear program," said Michael Mann, spokesman for Ms. Ashton, as the talks began. "We hope the Iranians respond positively and we can make progress today."
Mr. Mann said there were "proposals ... that are of interest to Iran," but said he could not confirm that they included any sanctions incentives.
The P5+1 offer may only be a preliminary bid. Western officials say they are hoping for another meeting in a few weeks – before a European embargo of Iranian oil takes effect in July.
Iranian media reported that Iran presented its own five-point package of nuclear and non-nuclear issues.
"In the first session, the P5+1 presented its proposals to Iran, but apparently from the Iranian point of view this package is not balanced," the Iranian Student News Agency reported.