Nuclear talks: Iran unmoved by world powers' latest proposal
World powers and Iran met in Istanbul yesterday to follow up on last month's talks in Kazakhstan. Despite high hopes, the two sides didn't find enough common ground.
Behind closed doors in Istanbul yesterday, six world powers gave Iran more details on their latest proposal to limit Iranâs most sensitive nuclear work â an offer Iran says still has "no balance" because it asks Iran to give up more than it gets in return.
In marathon 13.5-hour talks, the world powers clarified demands made last month that IranÂ limitÂ uranium enrichment to 20 percent â a level not too far technically from bomb-grade âÂ and put its Fordow underground facility out of service, in exchange for modest relief from sanctions that have crippled Iranâs economy.
Iran said that the incentivesÂ were not strongÂ enough, and that theÂ outcomeÂ of a year-long negotiation was still too ambiguous to take initial steps that could overcome mutual mistrust.Â That result tempers optimism voiced by Iran in late February that changes in the six world powers' offer were a potential "turning point."
âFrom our side, [the proposed] relief of the sanctions is not proportionate with what they are asking Iran to do,â says an Iranian close to the talks who asked not to be identified further because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. âThey are asking Iran to suspend 20 percent enrichment, and reduce the readiness of Fordow, which from our point of view is [the same as] shutting Fordow down. We argued that there is no balance between what they are asking, and what they are offering.â
Obama: Iran faces 'stark' choice
The talks came as US President Barack Obama issued his annual message to mark the Persian New Year celebration, Nowruz. Mr. Obama said he was âhopeful that our countries can move beyond tensionâ but that Iranâs leaders faced a stark âchoiceâ over their nuclear program, which he said âthreatens peace and security in the region and beyond.âÂ
âI have no illusions about the difficulty of overcoming decades of mistrust,â said Obama, adding that the US âprefersâ a diplomatic solution.
âIndeed, if âÂ as Iranâs leaders say â their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, then there is a basis for a practical solution,â said Obama. âNow is the time for the Iranian government to take immediate and meaningful steps to reduce tensions and work toward an enduring, long-term settlement of the nuclear issue.â
Top diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) are due to meet again in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on April 5 and 6. The P5+1 wants Iran to agree to some initialÂ limits onÂ higher-level enrichment in exchange for easing restrictions on trade in gold and precious metals and petrochemical exports.
ButÂ itsÂ offer does not ease the sanctions against Iranâs oil exports or central bank dealings, which have done most to harm Iranâs economyÂ and whichÂ Iran considersÂ essential if it is to eventually,Â permanently curb its nuclear advances.
The P5+1 offered to enact no new United Nations Security Council or European Union sanctions against Iran, but âthe Americans did not promise anythingâ about preventing more unilateral US measures, said the Iranian source â important because some in Congress are calling for further sanctions on Iran.
âThe meeting also provided an opportunity for both [P5+1] and Iranian experts to explore each other's positions on a number of technical subjects,â said a statement from Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, whose office handles negotiations on behalf of the P5+1.Â Â
US and P5+1 officials did not brief the press after the technical talks, referring journalists instead to the EU statement.
After the Almaty round three weeks ago, a senior US official said the revised P5+1 proposalÂ put to IranÂ aimed to lay outÂ initial steps from both sides that would âput time on the clock.â This proposal eases earlier demands that Iran halt all enrichment right from the start, including low-levels of 5 percent; export all 20-percent enriched uranium; and close Fordow altogether.
Finding ground for trust
Iran says it rejects nuclear weapons as un-Islamic andÂ is only pursuing a nuclear program for the purpose of producing energy. But it has yet to resolve all outstanding allegations about past weapons-related work with UN nuclear inspectors, prompting concern from Washington to Tel Aviv to Beijing about its real intentions.
After the Almaty talks, Iranâs chief nuclear negotiator Saeed JaliliÂ told The Christian Science MonitorÂ that it was ânot important that these steps are small,â but âthat those steps should be balanced.âÂ
ButÂ Iran does not considerÂ the latest P5+1 proposal toÂ adequately reciprocate for the demands it makes on Tehran,Â nor â in Iranâs view â provide a guarantee that if Tehran took every step required, the P5+1 would respond in kind.Â
TheÂ negotiators discussed allottingÂ six monthsÂ for theÂ confidence-building steps of suspending 20 percent enrichmentÂ andÂ modifying Fordow in a way that would prevent a quick resumption of work there.Â
If Iran carried out such âvoluntary measuresâ for six months, the offer put on the table by the P5+1Â would moveÂ into a âsecond phaseâ in which Iran would be asked to take âmore significant steps,â said the Iranian source close to the talks. âOur question was, âWhat do you mean by these further, significant steps?â because these are vague, unclear statements.â
If Iran did suspend 20 percent enrichment for six months, andÂ then that temporary suspension was renewed, âare we going to repeat what we have done again and again? There is no guarantee here, about when and how your [P5+1] confidence could be built. You are only relievingÂ someÂ of the sanctions, notÂ liftingÂ the sanctions,â added the source.
Those questions were not answered in Istanbul: âEither they did not know what the further significant steps were, or they didnât want to say anything about it,â said the Iranian source. âBoth sides have a problem of attitudes. They donât have the attitude of changing, or solving anything.â
In his Nowruz message, Obama told Iranians, âEvery day that you are cut off from us is a day weâre not working together, building together, innovating together.â He quoted the ancient Persian poet Hafez about planting the âtree of friendship.âÂ
But Iranâs state-run Press TV said Obama âlaid the blame (on) Iranian leadersâ for sanctions, and had at times in the message adopted a âthreatening tone.â