ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — Six world powers have sat down at the negotiating table with Iran for talks they hope will make progress in curbing Tehran’s nuclear progress.
Friday’s talks follow a previous round in February in the Kazakh city of Almaty that ended with both sides speaking of some movement in bridging significant differences.
The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany hope the talks will result in at least some movement in a decade of efforts to reduce Iran’s bomb-making capacities by curbing its uranium-enrichment program.
Iran wants an end to punishing sanctions imposed to force it to end uranium enrichment, a process that can generate both nuclear energy and the core of nuclear weapons. It denies any interest in atomic arms.
The meeting broke for lunch after about three hours with no indication whether progress had been made.
Ahead of the meeting an EU official speaking for the six world powers said Friday the onus was on Iran to engage on the six-nation offer, which foresees a lifting of some sanctions but keeps penalties crippling Iran’s oil sales and economy in place.
“What we are hoping for is that Tehran will come back to us today with a clear and concrete response,” said Michael Mann.
“The core issue here is the international community concern of the very strong indications that Iran is developing technology that could be used for military purposes,” said Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the formal convener of the talks.
“There are suspicions of an enrichment program that could have military uses,” he said. “The confidence building has to come from Iran because it is Iran that is developing its nuclear program.”
Ahead of Friday’s session, a senior US administration official suggested more punitive sanctions will be imposed if “Iran does not begin to take concrete steps and concrete actions to meet international concerns.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of US government rules on background briefings with reporters.
On Thursday, chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said the success of the talks would depend on the powers recognizing Tehran’s right to enrichment.
“We think that they can open up tomorrow’s talks with one phrase — and that is to accept Iran’s right, particularly its right to enrich,” he told a crowd at Almaty university.
The six world powers have moved from demanding a total end to enrichment. As a first step, they now are asking Tehran only to stop the production and stockpiling of uranium enriched to 20 percent, which is just a technical step away from weapons-grade uranium. A halt to production and stockpiling would keep Iran’s supply below the amount needed for further processing into a weapon.
On Thursday, State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland indicated the US administration was not seeking to keep Iran from enriching some uranium.
“We’ve always said that nobody was looking to deny Iran the right to civilian nuclear power, but it has to be under the right circumstances and at the end of the… a positive resolution of the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program more broadly,” she told reporters.
Israel says the Islamic Republic is only a few months away from the threshold of having material to turn into a bomb and has vowed to use all means to prevent it from reaching that point. The United States has not said what its “red line” is, but has said it will not tolerate an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.
Any strike on Iran would provoke fierce retaliation directly from Iran and through its Middle East proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, raising the specter of a larger Middle East conflict. The stakes are clearly high for negotiators from six nations meeting their Iranian counterparts in the Kazakh commercial capital, Almaty, on Friday and Saturday.
While not mentioning the use of force, the United States and Israel both warned Iran ahead of that meeting that they would not allow it to acquire nuclear arms.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran is a model of a country that is “talking, but at the same time developing nuclear weapons.”
“I think that model certainly can’t be allowed to happen in the case of Iran,” said Netanyahu Wednesday after meeting with Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Eide.
In Washington, a senior US administration official urged Tehran to meet demands from the six powers that it scale back on uranium enrichment — a potential path to nuclear weapons — citing President Barack Obama as saying that “all options remain on the table” to prevent Iran from having such arms. The official demanded anonymity as a condition for speaking on the issue.
The six — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — hope the talks will result in at least an incremental advance in a decade of efforts to reduce Iran’s bomb-making capacities by curbing its uranium-enrichment program.
The two sides parted in February after meeting in Almaty with an agreement to at least keep talking over a new proposal submitted by the six. But they remain vastly divided on what they want from each other.
Iran wants an end to punishing sanctions crippling its economy. They were imposed to force it to end uranium enrichment, a process that can generate both nuclear energy and the core of nuclear weapons. Iran denies any interest in atomic arms, insists its enrichment program serves only peaceful needs, says it has a right to enrich under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and describes UN Security Council demands that it stop enrichment as illegal.
“We are talking about peaceful nuclear energy,” Jalili said before the latest talks. He said Iran had a right to such a program and accused “a handful of countries” of working “to deny this right to others.”
Starting a few months ago, Tehran began keeping a ceiling on its higher-enriched uranium stockpile below the amount it would need to produce bomb-grade material, by turning some into a form unusable for weapons and holding off on activating more enriching centrifuges.
Neither Iran nor the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose experts monitor Iran’s atomic program, have confirmed that Tehran is continuing to limit its higher-enriched uranium stockpile. But IAEA chief Yukiya Amano told The Associated Press this week he has “no particular indications” to believe otherwise.
While the six are dangling some sanctions relief, they are not offering to lift sanctions on Iranian oil exports and other punitive measures. The offer is not enough for Iran, so at best, the negotiations will end Saturday with an agreement that enough progress was made to talk again later.
Deep-seated Iranian suspicions of US motives add to the hurdles at the Almaty talks, said Belfer Center nonproliferation expert Gary Samore, alluding to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Samore, President Barack Obama’s coordinator for weapons of mass destruction until January, said Iran’s supreme leader “strongly suspects that the US is using the nuclear issue to ultimately overthrow the (Iranian) regime.”
Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said “the two sides are just too far apart.”
“At best, they may narrow their differences,” said Fitzpatrick, a former US administration official.
Even an agreement to keep talking would give both sides short-term gains.
It would leave the international community with some breathing space in its efforts to stem Iran’s nuclear advance. For Tehran, continued negotiations are insurance that neither Israel nor the United States will feel the need to act on threats to move from diplomacy to other means to deal with Iran.