Iran and world powers failed to reach an accord on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in talks that ended last night, dragging out a decade-long dispute that threatens to escalate with new sanctions or military threats against Iran.
“We’ve talked in greater detail than ever before,” with a “real back and forward between us,” though the two sides “remain far apart in substance,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters after two days of negotiations in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Ashton said diplomats from the six powers -- the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia -- will go back to their capitals to consult on next steps, though they didn’t set a date and place for the next round of talks.
Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili said the talks were “substantive, intensive and comprehensive,” and said the other countries “weren’t ready” to accept Iran’s proposal. While Western officials said it is for Iran to make the first concessions, Jalili said the other side must prove its sincerity and show what Iran stands to gain at the end of the process.
Failure to advance talks will add to pressure on Iran, which is already subject to dozens of sanctions to punish its nuclear program, including curbs on financial transactions and crude oil exports that are its main source of revenue.
“There was somewhat of a gap that remains, obviously,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Istanbul today. “This is not an endless process, this is not something where you can play with the clock. You can’t just delay and talk for the sake of talking.”
While the U.S. still aspires to a diplomatic solution, Kerry said the choice “lies in the hands of the Iranians.”
The U.S. and Israel have threatened military strikes to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon if diplomacy doesn’t work. Iran insists its atomic program is for energy and medical research; world powers suspect Iran of seeking a covert nuclear weapons capability.
After the last round of talks in Almaty six weeks ago, officials on both sides had expressed optimism they might be nearing a breakthrough, with Jalili calling the last talks “a turning point.”
This time, Ashton said that while the talks went into greater detail than ever before, “what matters at the end is substance.
‘‘These are not talks for the sake of it. These are talks with a purpose,’’ she said, adding that the six powers will continue negotiations for as long as they are useful.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, called this round the ‘‘most tense and intensive’’ talks in the last two to three years, though ‘‘we weren’t able to reach mutual understanding on the essential questions.’’
‘‘We believe that there should be no pause in talks,’’ he said, adding it is critical for both sides to take their proposals back to their capitals and ‘‘look where and whether there need to be corrections.’’
In an interview at the sidelines of the talks, Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst from the Washington-based International Crisis Group, said the latest round represented ‘‘neither a breakdown, nor a breakthrough,’’ words echoed by a U.S. negotiator who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Progress on an interim proposal by the six powers for Iran to suspend its 20 percent enrichment of uranium in return for limited relief from sanctions was scuttled by Iran’s insistence on being assured that what it sees as its right to peaceful enrichment of uranium eventually will be recognized.
Ryabkov said in an interview last night that elements of the six nations’ offer, which hasn’t been made public, include lifting curbs on Iran’s ability to trade in gold and precious metals, along with easing limits on its petrochemical exports.
Iran is saying that ‘‘unless we know the destination, we’re not going to take the first step,” Vaez said. Iran’s leaders may have “underestimated the other side’s resolve in increasing the pressure, tightening the screws.”
The U.S. official said yesterday’s conversations involved more free-flowing exchange on specifics than in the last 10 years of negotiations, though the six powers were disappointed not to get a more concrete response from Iran. The official said Iran is only offering minimal steps and expecting too much in return.
Jalili repeatedly said recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful use under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would move the talks forward.
There are differences among the six powers over how to respond to that demand. Ryabkov reiterated Russia’s position that Iran does have the right to enrich uranium once broader nuclear inspections are in place, while the U.S. and EU have so far declined to agree.
The UN Security Council has ordered the country to suspend production of the heavy metal, which can be used to generate nuclear power or, at higher purity, to fuel an atomic bomb.
Asked whether Iran would consider suspending enrichment at 20 percent levels, Jalili said, “We are not opposed to taking a step but we must know upon what foundations it rests,” adding that, “when we talk about building trust this is not an abstract issue.”
Iran has the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves and has threatened to stop crude shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, a key trade route, if attacked. After reaching a nine-month high of $119 a barrel in February on concern over a conflict with Iran, Brent crude has declined as the tensions eased. It closed April 5 at $104.12, the lowest since July.
The failure to reach an agreement was “foretold from the start,” Israel’s Minister of International Relations, Yuval Steinitz, said. “Without a meaningful and concrete threat, that also includes a brief, clear and definitive timetable,” Iran’s nuclear program won’t be stopped, he said in a text message.