Back Middle East Little change on Iran's nuclear merry-go-round

Little change on Iran's nuclear merry-go-round

For months - even years - Iran and the West have been engaged in circular talks about Tehran's nuclear programme. Last week's talks, in the capital of Kazakhstan, were no different.

Iran met with representatives from the US, Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France. According to US officials, the main focus of the talks was to be Iran's response to the offer presented to them at the last round of talks. This proposal was toned down, requesting a reduction in high-grade uranium enrichment and a halting of activity at the Fordow underground facility, in return for the loosening of harsh economic sanctions. The main difference between this offer and those made previously is that it does not insist on removing all of the 20-percent-enriched uranium from Iran, allowing the country to keep some of it to produce isotopes for medical use. The signs were positive. At the last meeting, in June, Iran indicated that it would consider the proposal and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi described it as "a milestone".

Yet it was not to be. After the first day of talks last week, officials said that little progress had been made. A western diplomat told Israel's Haaretz newspaper that they were "somewhat puzzled" by the Iranians' failure to give a response to the proposal.

On the second day, Saturday, talks broke down altogether. EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton told a press conference, "It became clear that our positions remain far apart on the substance. We've therefore agreed that all sides will go back to their capitals to evaluate where we stand in the process."

The next round of talks has not been scheduled but it will not take place for several months while each country looks over the options. Most analysts suggest that little meaningful progress will be made before Iran's election on 14 June. The election will bring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial eight-year presidency to an end; until then, there is little mandate for a new consensus in Iran.

So, after yet another round of failed talks, is all hope for a compromise dead in the water? Fundamentally, the basic disagreement remains, and will always remain, over Iran's starting point for negotiations, which is that it has the right to enrich uranium. This was what it came back to in Kazakhstan, rather than focusing on the new proposal. America, with pressure from Israel and backing from other western powers, does not want to take any chances in allowing Iran to edge closer to making a bomb.

Has anything changed? Certainly, Iran has retained its tough stance. Chief negotiator Saeed Jalili also said that America had to "change its behaviour", saying in a speech before the talks commenced: "If parties want to gain the trust and confidence of the Iranian people, they have to move away from hostile treatment and shift attitudes towards Iranians. This was a principal issue in our discussions and we've always relayed this to them."

Yet there are some positive signs. "We have talked in much greater detail than ever before and our efforts will continue in that direction," said Cathy Ashton. "For the first time that I've seen, [there was] a real back and forth between us, where we were able to discuss details, to pose questions, and to get answers directly."

Analysts have noted that before the talks, the signs from Iran were positive. Over at Middle East Online, writer Patrick Seale says that Ashton herself has broken with the "US tendency to portray Iran as a sinister adversary" and made an effort to talk with Jallili, "to understand his concerns and break with the language of condemnation and threat too often adopted by US officials and commentators." Such a change of approach could have a significant positive impact.

There are rumours that America is ready to seek a political deal with Iran. Barack Obama adopted a much calmer stance when he said that it would take at least a year for Iran to build a nuclear weapon, meaning that there is still time for an agreement. On the other hand, though, the president has ordered a massive military build-up in the Gulf and warned in Jerusalem last month that, "time is not unlimited" to reach a deal.

The fundamental problems still remain. Even if America did want to reach a deal - which is far from certain, particularly in the Middle East, where US motives are always suspected - it may be hampered by Israel. The country which is currently the only nuclear armed nation in the region (albeit undeclared) wants Iran's nuclear programme to be halted altogether, and has repeatedly threatened military intervention. Israel's minister of strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, dismissed the talks in Kazakhstan as a "failure", saying that Iran was playing for time while it enriched uranium.

Ultimately, little has really changed in the stalemate, other than a slight softening of rhetoric. As Benjamin Alter and Edward Fishman argue in the Atlantic, "Despite the pressure of sanctions, Tehran is more inclined to stand its ground than make a deal, and Washington prefers the present impasse to war." As yet, nothing has happened to change that.


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