In Moscow today, Iran and world powers began to "engage" in detail about Iran's nuclear program for the first time, though fundamental differences could prove unbridgeable tomorrow. Such an impasse could jeopardize the diplomatic track and eventually risk another Middle East war.
The P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) want Iran to give up its most sensitive uranium enrichment work, close a deeply buried facility, and take steps that will forever keep it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Iran's response today to that proposal – first put forward during acrimonious talks in Baghdad last month – focused on recognition of its "right" to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and lifting crippling economic sanctions.
Neither point is part of the current P5+1 package, which will be gnawed over in final sessions in Moscow tomorrow.
"The difficulty here is not only quite a distance between the positions but also the sequencing ... what comes first, what comes next, what this reciprocity means," Sergei Ryabkov, a Russian deputy foreign minister and negotiator, told journalists after the first day of talks. "It's very complex. The logic of the negotiations is extremely complicated."
Afternoon session 'better'
In what may prove to be a critical encounter, Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili met after the formal talks with his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia's national security council and the former chief of Russia's FSB, the successor to the KGB.
But it was far from clear if Russian influence with Iran would be enough to yield progress when talks resume tomorrow. An Iranian diplomat close to the talks told the Monitor the morning session was "not good at all," though the afternoon was "better."
"Neither side is ready to say what their real points are," says the diplomat. "They do not want to be in the position that the other side might guess their cards. Adding to that you could see huge lack of confidence…. P5+1 are not ready to give anything to Iran in response to Iran's steps. [T]hey were here today just to have Iran's response. It seemed that they did not have any clear vision [of] the next steps."
Iran says it rejects nuclear weapons as un-Islamic; Israel says it could launch airstrikes to prevent Iran from having the capability of making an atomic bomb, and that negotiations with Iran are a waste of time.
So today both the P5+1 and Iran tried to spin the non-negative result of their "engagement," without yielding from their well-known positions.
"There was engagement," said Mr. Mann. "We'll have to wait and see tomorrow, I think, whether they come back with a positive attitude towards our proposals."
The "clear" first step for the Iranians, he said, was to engage on their most sensitive 20 percent enriched uranium, which is only a few technical steps away from bomb grade.
Iran will 'consider' a deal on enriched uranium
Iranian officials have indicated since last fall that they were ready to deal on 20 percent enrichment. The Iranian diplomat said today that an integral part of Iran's five-point counterproposal was that, in exchange for sanctions relief, Iran would "consider" a deal on 20 percent.
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the point on his official website on Sunday, saying: "Today if they guarantee that they will provide 20 percent enriched fuel for the Iranian reactors, we won't have any problem." Ahmadinejad has little influence on nuclear policy, but the timing was significant.
Mr. Jalili's deputy Ali Bagheri, for the first time in three rounds of negotiations this year, briefed journalists at the end of the first day of talks.
Apparently feeling the need to state Iran's case, he said Iran responded to P5+1 concerns with "lengthy and detailed" discussions about how "clear, reciprocal steps" needed to be taken by each side, which could result in a "very serious achievement."
Top priority for Iran, said Mr. Bagheri, is "the right to enrich [uranium] as a responsible member state of the NPT," or Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Iranians, he said, also needed confidence building measures and "emphasized the mechanism which could be implemented in order to attain the confidence of the Iranian people."
Jalili's presentation "caught the attention of the other side," said Bagheri, in "constructive and serious" talks.
Jalili told the P5+1 that the referral of Iran's nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council was "illegal." Since 2006, the council has imposed half a dozen resolutions that require a suspension of enrichment, while Iran resolves questions about past weapons-related work.
Even as the talks got under way in Moscow, Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking in Tehran, warned world powers to "learn from the unsuccessful experience of confronting the Iranian nation and they should know that arrogance and irrelevant expectations ... won't work."
Ayatollah Khamenei's web page used a headline that began: "Enemies need to learn lessons ..."
P5+1 ready for 'reciprocal steps'
On the eve of the Moscow talks, a Western official said the P5+1 was ready to take "reciprocal steps in exchange for verifiable Iranian actions."
The P5+1 proposal put forward in Baghdad has not changed, and includes likely deal-breakers for the Iranians such as suspension of all enrichment – which Iran for years has turned into a point of national pride – and shutting down a deeply buried enrichment facility that is closely monitored by UN nuclear inspectors.
"As we have said, Iran has a right to peaceful nuclear energy under the NPT, but it must first meet its international obligations," the Western official said, indirectly referring to the UN resolutions that require suspending all levels of enrichment. "If Iran remains unwilling to take the opportunities these talks present, it will face continuing and intensified pressure and isolation."
Iranian officials say they won't cross their own red line and halt enrichment, as they once did from 2003 to 2005, only to see little return from their European interlocutors at the time.
The dispute over enrichment, which Iran began again in 2005 and has continued ever since, could derail the Moscow talks tomorrow. Western powers are concerned that Iran has stockpiled enough enriched uranium for four to five nuclear bombs, if enriched to higher levels.
"This is among the first or second most important thing for us," says the Iranian diplomat. "Their [P5+1 priority] is any diversion of nuclear material for military purposes. Ours is recognition of our right to enrich."