Setback at Iran nuclear talks

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Almaty, Kazakhstan__Western diplomats on Friday expressed initial dismay after listening to Iranian negotiators present their response to a revised international nuclear proposal. But after further meetings Friday, western negotiators said the talks had become more substantive, though the sides remained some ways apart.

“We are somewhat puzzled by the Iranians’ characterisation of what they presented,” a western official told journalists after a three hour meeting here between diplomats from Iran and six world powers.

Rather than the “clear and concrete” response the six powers had been seeking, the Iranian nuclear negotiating team offered “some interesting, but not fully explained, general comments on our ideas,” the western official continued.

“It was mainly a reworking of what they said in Moscow,” the official said, referring to a powerpoint on Iran’s proposed framework for negotiations that Tehran envoys presented in Moscow last June.

Earlier Friday, Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri, in a mid-day press conference, said Iran had presented a “comprehensive proposal” to international negotiators that stressed the process and endgame, beyond short-term confidence-building steps.

The Islamic Republic of Iran “proposed a practical method to implement a Moscow plan in a smaller scale, and stressed that actions and so-called confidence building measures must be considered as part of a larger, more comprehensive plan,” Bagheri, speaking through a translator, said at a second press conference Friday evening.

But western diplomats expressed initial puzzlement at what they perceived as Iran’s apparant return to debating modalities for negotiations, rather than haggling over specific steps discussed at two recent rounds of talks this year.

“We had a long and substantial discussion on the issues, but we remain a long way apart on the substance,” a western official said at the conclusion of the first day of talks Friday. “We are now evaluating the situation and will meet again tomorrow.”

Diplomats from Iran, the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the EU are expected to meet again here on Saturday. Iran also held a series of bilateral meetings Friday evening, including with the Russians, Germany, and UK. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is expected to meet with Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili Saturday morning before plenary talks get underway.

Another meeting ‘to narrow gaps’ will possibly be agreed before delegations depart, one official suggested, although it was not yet clear at what level it would be held.

Western diplomats notably sent out the SOS about how things were going downhill early in the first day of the expected two-day talks in an apparent bid to try to salvage seeming progress made in two recent rounds of talks. Iran seeks, before it would agree to suspend its 20% enrichment, to get assurances on a path that will result in recognition of its right to enrich and broader sanctions relief. Western diplomats say Iran should take the first step in a confidence building measure.

Iran diplomats were engaged and focused on the substance at technical talks held in Istanbul March 18th that stretched on for 12 hours, a US official said Wednesday, adding that they were not, however, authorized to negotiate there. In Istanbul, Iran was represented by two officials also attending the Almaty talks, deputy foreign minister for Asian affairs Abbas Araghchi and Hamid-Reza Asgari, an Iranian intelligence officer and legal advisor who has been involved in Iran’s international arms control negotiations for over a decade.

Analysts said the Iran’s team apparent retreat in Almaty to debating process could be a costly miscalculation for Tehran, which could be hit with more economic sanctions.

“If the Iranians decided, instead of focusing on confidence building measures, to go back to principles, it is a miscalculation, because there is not enough common ground,” Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, here in Kazakhstan for the negotiations, told Al-Monitor Friday.

The sides are “too far apart for any solution to come out of Almaty,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US arms control official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview early Friday. But maybe the meeting can bring the parties’ positions “closer together,” he added, though “nothing will get resolved until later.”

(Photo: Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, led by Saeed Jalili, in talks on Iran’s nuclear program in Almaty, Kazakhstan on Wednesday April 5, 2013. AFP)