Iran Nuclear Stalemate Sends Powers to Ponder Consequences

The failure of Iran and the world powers to reach an interim deal over the Islamic nation’s nuclear work may increase pressure for additional sanctions and force diplomats to consider alternatives to end the dispute.

Two days of talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, left the sides “far apart in substance,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on behalf of the U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany. Diplomats didn’t announce plans for new talks on Iran’s nuclear program, which the U.S. and its allies suspect is designed to produce weapons.

“It was necessary for the Iranians to come and demonstrate that they would move,” Dennis Ross, President Barack Obama’s former adviser on Iran, said in an e-mail. “They haven’t. There should be a consequence and it is certainly time to reassess whether the step-by-step approach can ever yield anything.”

While diplomats uniformly commended the tone and detail of the April 5 and 6 negotiating round, the goodwill couldn’t compensate for the distrust between them that has built over 10 years of stalemate. Iran wants a clear pledge that its right to enrich uranium, a material that can be used to build nuclear bombs, won’t be compromised if it suspends some production.

Western powers won’t budge on recognizing any rights until Iran has taken confidence-building steps, such as halting enrichment.

Door Open

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking yesterday in Istanbul, said “the door is still open” for nuclear talks, while adding, “This is not an endless process.”

Iran will announce a new nuclear achievement tomorrow, on its annual National Nuclear Technology Day, the state-run Fars news agency said, without elaborating.

“Both sides have backed themselves into rhetorical corners about ‘rights’ and ‘obligations’ and neither side is capable of offering the concessions that the other says it needs,” said U.S. Naval Academy Professor John Limbert, a former American diplomat who served in Iran, in an e-mail. “This singular focus on the nuclear issue seems to bring continued stalemate on a problem that, for the moment, may be politically too hard.”

The U.S. and Israel have said they will not tolerate a nuclear Iran and haven’t ruled out military strikes to prevent the government in Tehran from producing atomic weapons. Iran, with the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves, insists its atomic work is peaceful and has vowed to disrupt regional crude shipments if attacked.

‘Fundamental Clash’

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 a barrel, the lowest since July, and traded at $104.43 in Singapore today.

“There are enormous differences between Iran and the U.S. on the future of the Middle East,” said Ray Takeyh, a former senior adviser on Iran at the State Department who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This is not a technical disagreement requiring clever formulas, but a fundamental clash of ideological and practical interests.”

While the negotiations in Almaty involved the most free-flowing exchanges on specific proposals seen in the last 10 years, the failure to agree will result in more international pressure, said a senior U.S. official who declined to be identified because of the talks’ sensitivity. Cultural differences and the lack of trust between the U.S. and Iran made discussing details challenging, with Iran only offering minimal steps and expecting too much in return, the official said.

Enrichment Dispute

Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed 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. The United Nations 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 make an atomic bomb.

“We are not opposed to taking a step but we must know upon what foundations it rests,” Jalili said when asked whether Iran would consider suspending enrichment at higher levels. “When we talk about building trust this is not an abstract issue.”

The stalemate over enrichment has tested the unity of the six powers, which include all five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. Russia, which built Iran’s only working nuclear power plant and has supported Iran’s Syrian ally, President Bashar al-Assad, amid a popular uprising, has split with its European and U.S. negotiating partners on the subject. China didn’t disclose its stance.

‘Unjust’ West

“We believe that some aspects of the Western side are unjust and not in accordance with international legal norms,” Russia’s top negotiator Sergei Ryabkov said. “The model of a final resolution must be recognition of all Iranian rights included in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including the right for enrichment.”

The negotiations were “the most tense and intensive” yet and “there should be no pause in talks,” Ryabkov said.

After the previous round of discussions in Almaty, six weeks ago, officials spoke optimistically about the prospect of a breakthrough. This time, the EU’s Ashton said that while last week’s talks got down to greater detail than before, “what matters at the end is substance.”

She and Jalili have said they would talk with each other about a possible new round of negotiations after all the delegations have consulted with leaders in their capitals.

“The United States is far away from imposing the kind of massive pressure that could collapse the Iranian economy,” according to analyst Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, who has been advising U.S. lawmakers on ways to tighten financial sanctions on Iran.

Absent Breakthrough

“In the absence of a diplomatic breakthrough or an internal development that shakes the regime, it is increasingly looking like Iran will either get the bomb or President Obama will order military strikes to forestall that possibility,” Dubowitz said.

Thomas Pickering, former U.S. undersecretary of state, said his experience in negotiating with Iran suggests that it’s premature to declare diplomacy dead.

“Expecting breakthroughs is over-optimistic,” Pickering said in an interview. “These talks will be long and hard. But the progress is there,” with “deeper engagement” in Almaty over a possible confidence-building deal.

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