Nuclear talks: Iran unmoved by world powers' latest proposal

World powers and Iran met in Istanbul yesterday to follow up on last month's talks in Kazakhstan. Despite high hopes, the two sides didn't find enough common ground. 

Pavel Mikheyev/AP
Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili listens to a question at a final news conference during last month's talks in Kazakhstan.

Behind closed doors in Istanbul yesterday, six world powers gave Iran more details on their latest proposal to limit Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work – an offer Iran says still has "no balance" because it asks Iran to give up more than it gets in return.

In marathon 13.5-hour talks, the world powers clarified demands made last month that Iran limit uranium enrichment to 20 percent – a level not too far technically from bomb-grade – and put its Fordow underground facility out of service, in exchange for modest relief from sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

Iran said that the incentives were not strong enough, and that the outcome of a year-long negotiation was still too ambiguous to take initial steps that could overcome mutual mistrust. That result tempers optimism voiced by Iran in late February that changes in the six world powers' offer were a potential "turning point."

“From our side, [the proposed] relief of the sanctions is not proportionate with what they are asking Iran to do,” says an Iranian close to the talks who asked not to be identified further because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. “They are asking Iran to suspend 20 percent enrichment, and reduce the readiness of Fordow, which from our point of view is [the same as] shutting Fordow down. We argued that there is no balance between what they are asking, and what they are offering.”

Obama: Iran faces 'stark' choice

The talks came as US President Barack Obama issued his annual message to mark the Persian New Year celebration, Nowruz. Mr. Obama said he was “hopeful that our countries can move beyond tension” but that Iran’s leaders faced a stark “choice” over their nuclear program, which he said “threatens peace and security in the region and beyond.” 

“I have no illusions about the difficulty of overcoming decades of mistrust,” said Obama, adding that the US “prefers” a diplomatic solution.

“Indeed, if – as Iran’s leaders say – their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, then there is a basis for a practical solution,” said Obama. “Now is the time for the Iranian government to take immediate and meaningful steps to reduce tensions and work toward an enduring, long-term settlement of the nuclear issue.”

Not enough

Top diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) are due to meet again in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on April 5 and 6. The P5+1 wants Iran to agree to some initial limits on higher-level enrichment in exchange for easing restrictions on trade in gold and precious metals and petrochemical exports.

But its offer does not ease the sanctions against Iran’s oil exports or central bank dealings, which have done most to harm Iran’s economy and which Iran considers essential if it is to eventually, permanently curb its nuclear advances.

The P5+1 offered to enact no new United Nations Security Council or European Union sanctions against Iran, but “the Americans did not promise anything” about preventing more unilateral US measures, said the Iranian source – important because some in Congress are calling for further sanctions on Iran.

“The meeting also provided an opportunity for both [P5+1] and Iranian experts to explore each other's positions on a number of technical subjects,” said a statement from Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, whose office handles negotiations on behalf of the P5+1.  

US and P5+1 officials did not brief the press after the technical talks, referring journalists instead to the EU statement.

After the Almaty round three weeks ago, a senior US official said the revised P5+1 proposal put to Iran aimed to lay out initial steps from both sides that would “put time on the clock.” This proposal eases earlier demands that Iran halt all enrichment right from the start, including low-levels of 5 percent; export all 20-percent enriched uranium; and close Fordow altogether.

Finding ground for trust

Iran says it rejects nuclear weapons as un-Islamic and is only pursuing a nuclear program for the purpose of producing energy. But it has yet to resolve all outstanding allegations about past weapons-related work with UN nuclear inspectors, prompting concern from Washington to Tel Aviv to Beijing about its real intentions.

After the Almaty talks, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili told The Christian Science Monitor that it was “not important that these steps are small,” but “that those steps should be balanced.” 

But Iran does not consider the latest P5+1 proposal to adequately reciprocate for the demands it makes on Tehran, nor – in Iran’s view – provide a guarantee that if Tehran took every step required, the P5+1 would respond in kind. 

The negotiators discussed allotting six months for the confidence-building steps of suspending 20 percent enrichment and modifying Fordow in a way that would prevent a quick resumption of work there. 

If Iran carried out such “voluntary measures” for six months, the offer put on the table by the P5+1 would move into a “second phase” in which Iran would be asked to take “more significant steps,” said the Iranian source close to the talks. “Our question was, ‘What do you mean by these further, significant steps?’ because these are vague, unclear statements.”

If Iran did suspend 20 percent enrichment for six months, and then that temporary suspension was renewed, “are we going to repeat what we have done again and again? There is no guarantee here, about when and how your [P5+1] confidence could be built. You are only relieving some of the sanctions, not lifting the sanctions,” added the source.

Those questions were not answered in Istanbul: “Either they did not know what the further significant steps were, or they didn’t want to say anything about it,” said the Iranian source. “Both sides have a problem of attitudes. They don’t have the attitude of changing, or solving anything.”

In his Nowruz message, Obama told Iranians, “Every day that you are cut off from us is a day we’re not working together, building together, innovating together.” He quoted the ancient Persian poet Hafez about planting the “tree of friendship.” 

But Iran’s state-run Press TV said Obama “laid the blame (on) Iranian leaders” for sanctions, and had at times in the message adopted a “threatening tone.”

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