Officials from Iran and the West are expressing rare optimism after the latest round of nuclear talks wrapped up Wednesday.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, in Vienna, said the meeting, in which the group of six world powers offered to ease sanctions in return for Iran curbing its nuclear program, was “a milestone,” according to Iranian and Austrian media.
“From the latest information I received, I’m happy to say that the outcome of the meeting was positive. It has been put on the right track and it is moving in the right direction and that is important,” Salehi said. “I would say things are taking a turning point and I think the Almaty meeting will be a milestone.”
Echoing his sanguineness, a senior Western official was quoted by Reuters as saying Thursday that the talks had seen progress, a rare feat after over a year of fruitless negotiations between the five United Nations Security Council nations plus Germany and Iran.
Iranian parliament head Ali Larijani also called the talks “positive.”
Negotiators entered the meeting in Kazakhstan on Tuesday with low expectations, but emerged upbeat about the possibility of reaching a breakthrough. British Foreign Secretary William Hague and his American counterpart both termed the talks “useful.”
“This was more constructive and more positive than previous meetings because they were really focusing on the proposal on the table,” the Western diplomat told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, the diplomat said the world powers would not be able to gauge how seriously Iran is taking the talks until the next high-level meeting in April.
In the talks earlier this week, the P5+1 group reportedly offered to allow Iran to keep a limited amount of highly enriched uranium — but not make any more — and offered to remove some trade sanctions that have hurt Iran’s economy.
However, they stopped short of demanding Iran completely shut down the heavily guarded Fordo nuclear site, in the past a key demand.
Still, a senior US official said, crippling sanctions on Iran’s oil and financial industries would remain in place as negotiations continue. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks more candidly.
The latest offer marked a small but significant shift from earlier, harder-line proposals that prompted Iran to dig in its heels amid fears that an arms race in neighboring states could sow yet more instability in the already turbulent Mideast. Israel has repeatedly hinted its readiness to strike Iranian nuclear facilities — a military venture the United States likely would be dragged into.
The new offer also is expected to force Iran to respond with a reasonable plan of its own — or be seen as a recalcitrant negotiator unwilling to compromise.
The proposal “was more realistic than before and had tried to get closer to the Iranian viewpoint in some cases,” chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili told reporters at the end of two days of negotiations in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. “We consider this positive — although there is a long distance to reach the suitable point.”
The two sides will hold low-level talks in March to hash out the details of the deal, and then convene another high-level meeting in Almaty in early April.
Iran and the P5+1 had previously held several rounds of talks, with little progress. Israel has characterized the talks as a stalling tactic by Iran; on Thursday, former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman accused the West of backing down in front of Tehran.
“It’s clear to everyone that the Iranians don’t intend to halt their efforts to reach nuclear capability,” he said. “The reactors at Parchin and other locations are working at full steam without any [International Atomic Energy Agency] observer being allowed to visit.”
Iran maintains it has the right under international law to enrich uranium to 20 percent — a level that can quickly be elevated into use for nuclear warheads. Tehran claims it needs that level of enriched uranium for reactor fuel and medical isotopes, and has signaled it does not intend to stop.
UN nuclear inspectors last week confirmed Iran has begun a major upgrade of its program at the country’s main uranium enrichment site.