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.

Osman Orsal/Reuters
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.

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. 

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.

Neither of those steps are part of the current P5+1 offer to Iran. A number of senior former US officials and Iran analysts have in recent weeks charged the Obama administration with an over-reliance on pressure and sanctions, and risking diplomatic failure by offering Iran too few incentives. 

Seyyed Abbas Araghchi, a member of Iran’s negotiating team who was appointed Foreign Ministry spokesman this week, said on Tuesday: “We hope that the response that Ms. Ashton will provide [in Istanbul] will be constructive, and we are waiting to hear her response.”

Jalili is now a presidential candidate, and most analysts expect little progress on nuclear talks until Iran's June election picks a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Still, Jalili’s campaign has been tweeting that there would be no change in Iran’s nuclear stance. Upon arriving in Istanbul, Jalili said, “the nuclear issue is an issue beyond the party lines needing national consensus.”

Iran’s top officials say they reject nuclear weapons, but have been locked for years in a tussle with the UN nuclear agency to prove it.

Those policies were on display in Vienna earlier in the day, when Iran met with the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and both sides failed again to hammer out a framework agreement to enable access to suspect military sites, scientists, and documents.

“Our commitment to continue dialogue is unwavering,” Herman Nackaerts, deputy director of the IAEA, said after the Vienna talks. "However, we must recognize that our best efforts have not been successful so far."

The failure is the latest in 10 rounds of Iran-IAEA talks over 1.5 years. IAEA inspectors already routinely travel to and work in most of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities, but outstanding questions remain about possible past weapons-related work.

“There is still time for [Iran] to change course, but that time is not indefinite,” said Sherman, in prepared testimony. “I want to be clear that our policy is not aimed at regime change, but rather at changing the regime’s behavior.”

The US intends to continue stepping up pressure on Iran, said Sherman, as it has by leading “a global coalition to create the toughest, most comprehensive sanctions to date” against Iran. Plummeting crude oil exports cost Iran $3 billion to $5 billion each month; Iran’s currency has lost half its value since 2011. “Put simply, the Iranian economy is in a downward spiral, with no prospect for near-term relief. And we continue to increase the pressure,” said Sherman.

The US Congress has also moved to increase sanctions on Iran. Sen. Robert Menendez said today that “we are now at a crossroads in our Iran policy” because pressure had failed to force “concessions” from Iran. “The [P5+1] talks have been central in demonstrating to the world that it is Iran – and not the United States – that is acting in bad faith,” suggested Senator Menendez, “and it is Iran that – through its obstinance – has helped galvanize the international community to increase the pressure.”  

Speaking before the committee, David Cohen, the US Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said: “We will continue to identify ways to isolate Iran from the international financial system. We will continue to target Iran’s primary sources of export revenue.”

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