Iran Nuclear Talks Bring Signs of Potential Progress

Iran and six world powers came away from two days of talks with an agreement on further meetings and a mood among negotiators that some progress was made toward resolving the dispute over Iranian nuclear activities.

Iran hailed a positive “turning point,” as Western officials sounded a cautious note and urged concrete steps toward a deal at follow-up talks in March and April. Iran’s negotiator, Saeed Jalili, said a “more realistic and logical” proposal was made by the U.S. and its partners at the session in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

“We’re obviously pleased if Iran is positively disposed toward our proposal, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” Michael Mann, spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said in an interview yesterday, adding that Iran will need to back up its words with action.

Ashton, who serves as the lead negotiator for the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, said the new offer made to Iran was “balanced” and “responsive” to Iranian concerns. In exchange for Iran’s agreeing to cease its output of 20 percent enriched uranium, the group offered to ease restrictions on its exports of petrochemical products and some additional items, the chief Russian negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, said in an interview.

If Iran reviews the “credible confidence-building steps” that the six nations laid out, “these could pave the way for negotiations that lead toward a longer-term and comprehensive agreement,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday in Paris.

Next Meetings

Technical talks will be held in Istanbul on March 18, and political discussions with international negotiators will resume in Almaty on April 5-6, Jalili told reporters.

“For the first time, the two sides seemed to be really negotiating,” Trita Parsi, author of “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran” and president of the National Iranian-American Council, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “Past meetings resembled stare-offs with both sides trying to look tough while issuing threats. This time, they engaged in a give and take.”

Still, Western officials involved in the talks said there was no breakthrough on substance, which analysts such as Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said is the real test.

“The flip side of today’s apparent good news is the danger” that comes with raising expectation, she said by e-mail.

‘Real Challenge’

“The real challenge will be in maintaining momentum, crafting a specific agreement that can withstand the harsh glare of partisan politics in both Washington and Tehran, and then expanding any cooperation to address the broader question of enrichment and the rest of Iran’s” outstanding nuclear issues, she said.

World powers led by the U.S. are seeking a deal to curb the country’s nuclear program, which they say may have a secret military dimension, in return for the removal of economic sanctions imposed to punish Iran for illicit atomic work.

The stakes are high for reaching a negotiated settlement as both the U.S. and Israel have said that military action is possible to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Iran says its program is for civilian energy and medical research.

Jalili said the world powers had dropped a key demand made at three rounds of nuclear talks last year -- that Iran shut down its Fordo underground nuclear facility, which Iran built secretly before being exposed by the U.S. and its allies and submitting to UN monitoring of the site.

Suspend Fordo

A U.S. official, who asked to not be named to discuss the sensitive talks, said the world powers are insisting that Iran suspend enrichment of uranium at Fordo and do so under safeguards that would constrain its ability to quickly resume operations there. A suspension might buy time for further negotiations in a way that provides Iran with a face-saving approach to meeting the longer-term demands of the world powers.

Iran is enriching uranium to 20 percent purity and installing more advanced centrifuges at the plant built into a mountainside that would protect it from attack. While Iran says its 20 percent uranium is needed to fuel a medical research reactor, medium-grade uranium can also be further enriched relatively quickly to bomb-grade material.

The six powers proposed that Iran ship out of the country most of its medium-enriched stockpile, though it would be allowed to keep enough for that reactor, which produces isotopes for the treatment of cancer patients, according to a U.S. official.

‘Fundamentally Flawed’

Michael Singh, former National Security Council director for Iran under President George W. Bush, said by e-mail that any deal would be “fundamentally flawed” if it fails to dismantle Fordo to deny Iran a so-called “break out” capability to produce nuclear weapons quickly.

The six nations didn’t offer to waive the oil and banking sanctions on Iran that are having the most crippling effect on the Persian Gulf state’s economy, the U.S. official said. Instead, Iran was offered the easing of certain other U.S. and EU sanctions, the official said. The diplomat refused to specify those provisions, saying the two sides needed time to discuss and consider technical issues next month.

The six nations also offered to refrain from imposing additional United Nations Security Council and EU sanctions if Iran agrees to its side of the bargain, the U.S. diplomat said.

“Concrete details behind these proposals are being discussed,” Ryabkov said in an interview at the close of the talks. “If we succeed in achieving a shift on these questions, then wider horizons are opening up. Then we can begin to discuss everything including a final settlement.”

Israeli Reaction

Iran was tied with the United Arab Emirates last month as the No. 5 producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Crude oil for April delivery settled up 13 cents at $92.76 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Iran “is continuing to defy the international community,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in Jerusalem yesterday, according to an e-mailed statement from his office. Netanyahu criticized the notion of easing penalties, saying the international community needs to “ratchet up its sanctions and make clear that if this continues there will be also credible military sanction.”

Jalili reiterated that Iran has the right to enrichment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it’s a signatory. With the latest proposal presented, the U.S. and its negotiating partners “tried to get closer” to Iran’s position, he said, calling it “a positive step.”

U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman today is heading to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to consult with the U.S.’s closest allies in the region.

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