‘Robust’ Iran nuclear talks reveal gulf between sides

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Almaty, Kazakhstan__ Iran and six world powers remained far apart at the conclusion of two days of talks here without agreeing to meet again, but American and European diplomats said the Iranians had engaged more deeply than ever before on the details of a potential nuclear compromise.

“Two days of talks just concluded that were indeed quite substantive,” a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists at the conclusion of talks Saturday. “Each session involved a robust discussion … [that was] more natural and free-flowing than past talks.”

“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” the US diplomat said. “There was intensive dialogue on key issues at the core of [the proposed confidence building measure.]. Both sides came away with better understanding of each others’ positions.”

Among the interchanges described, was a 30-45 minute back and forth between the lead US negotiator at the talks, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Iran’s lead negotiator Saeed Jalili, in which Sherman asked Jalili a series of specific questions and he responded.

In meetings Saturday, Iranian negotiators apparently said what Iran would require in exchange for suspending 20% enrichment was the lifting of all unilateral sanctions, an Iran analyst attending the talks said was his understanding, based on conversations on the side-lines of the talks with members of the Iranian team.

The Iranian position is so far apart from where the P5+1 proposal is, international negotiators seemed taken aback. The intensive discussions over the past two days revealed a “significant gulf” between the two sides, the US official said.

“Lost in translation,” the Iran analyst described Iran’s positioning to Al-Monitor, saying he fears it could appear not as hard bargaining, but an expectations gap that may be harder to close.

American and European diplomats said they are committed to the diplomatic process, but did not agree to the Iranian request to schedule new talks yet, in part to signal Iran that it had not come to Almaty with what they considered a sufficiently concrete response to their revised proposal. The updated international offer eased some previous demands that Iran totally shut the Fordo enrichment facility but asked it suspend operations there, and would allow Iran to keep enough 20% fuel for the country’s domestic medical needs. It also offered some modest sanctions relief on trade in gold and precious metals and petrochemical sales.

We “had long and intensive discussions on the issues,” during which “it became clear that the positions of the E3+3 and Iran remain far apart on the substance,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said at a press briefing at the conclusion of talks here Saturday.

“We have therefore agreed that all sides will go back to capitals to evaluate where we stand in the process,” Ashton continued, saying she will call her Iranian counterpart Jalili soon to “see how to go forward.”

Iranian negotiators arrived in Almaty this week taking a hard line, calling for an endgame road-map that would give it assurances of the recognition of the right to enrich and the lifting of sanctions before it would move on a short-term confidence building measure focused on curbing 20% enrichment. But western negotiators pushed back, saying they were puzzled and disappointed in the “minimal” Iranian presentation. Iran then pivoted over the next 36 hours to arguing for a better deal, sources said.

Iranian diplomats, in an apparent bid to soften the impression of posturing on the first day, also held a series of bilateral meetings, including with Russia, the UK and Germany on Friday, and with the EU’s Ashton, China, and notably, France, on Saturday. (The US did not have a bilateral meeting, and US officials said they had not expected one.)

Jalili, speaking at a press conference Saturday, seemed to be largely directing his message to an Iranian domestic audience, stressing that Iran presented its own action plan that called for enrichment rights and the lifting of sanctions. He acknowledged but downplayed the gap between the two sides, and made no mention of the fact that he himself had told a press conference five weeks earlier in Almaty that the revised international proposal was a “turning point” and “positive.”

“Of course there is some distance between the positions of the two sides,” Jalili said Saturday. “The Islamic Republic of Iran has announced on numerous occasions—stressing the rights of the Iranian people including the right to enrich and an end to behaviors which are a sign of enmity towards the people of Iran”—code for sanctions—“based on these two points.”

Diplomats from both sides acknowledged that Iran was eager to schedule a new meeting but the P5+1 wasn’t prepared to agree to one at this point, given the gap between the sides and wanting to avoid ‘talks for talks sake.” But western diplomats stressed that Ashton would be contacting Jalili in a matter of “days, not months,” following consultations among the P5+1, to try to figure out what format might work to see if gaps could be narrowed.

(Photo: AFP)