No breakthrough in talks over Iran's nuclear programme

While no one expects a breakthrough in Almaty, a shared desire to avoid military conflict gives both the West and Iran a vested interest in keeping the fragile negotiations going despite Friday's apparent stalemate.

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World powers yesterday urged Iran to accept their "fair and balanced" offer of modest sanctions relief in return for curbing the most sensitive aspects of its nuclear programme.

Iran, however, put the onus for progress on resolving the decade-old standoff on the six powers - the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.

Iranian negotiators said they had brought their own "ground-breaking proposals" to the two-day talks in Kazakhstan with the P5+1, but did not elaborate.

The P5+1 had said it was hoping that Iran would respond to a plan outlined in February that would offer some sanctions relief if Iran stopped its most sensitive nuclear work.

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday that Iran has yet to meet the group’s demands. “What we are looking for is a clear and concrete response to the proposal that we put forward in February,” she said.

While no one expects a breakthrough in Almaty, the former Kazakh capital, a shared desire to avoid military conflict gives both sides a vested interest in keeping the fragile negotiations going despite yesterday's apparent stalemate.

The Iranian regime, bracing for potentially destabilising presidential elections in June, is also keen to assure its people that it is doing its best to ease choking sanctions.

Tehran has branded the latest P5+1 proposals - made in Almaty in February - as "unbalanced", but described the talks as "positive".

Iran's state-run media and officials have struck an upbeat tone, claiming the US has concluded that "the Islamic republic is the most powerful country in the Middle East". Washington, they maintain, now accepts it has to interact with Tehran rather than try to confront it.

Analysts said that positive spin may be designed to give the Iranian leadership face-saving room to sell a modest nuclear concession in coming months as a "win-win situation".

Mutual mistrust runs deep. Washington suspects Tehran is trying to drag out the negotiations as it advances its nuclear programme while Iran believes the US's real aim is regime change.

The West's immediate goal is for Iran to halt enriching uranium to 20 per cent, a level of purity that is within striking distance of bomb-grade material.

Tehran, which insists its nuclear programme is solely peaceful and brands the atom bomb un-Islamic, has repeatedly signalled it could halt 20 per cent enrichment if the price is right.

That price is formal recognition of Iran's "right" to enrich uranium up to 3.5 per cent - the level required to fuel electricity-generating reactors - as well as significant sanctions relief.

By focusing on Iran's higher level of enrichment, Washington has implicitly recognised Iran's right to a domestic nuclear fuel cycle for civilian purposes, but will not do so explicitly until Tehran makes significant concessions. These include Iran's co-operating with UN nuclear inspectors to resolve outstanding allegations about past weapons-related work.

Maintaining a domestic enrichment programme is vital to Iran's leaders. They have invested national and personal prestige in the project they champion as central to Iran's scientific prowess and independence. But the cost has been huge.

Iran has lost more than US$100 billion (Dh367bn) in oil revenues and foreign investment as a result of sanctions, according to a report by two Washington think tanks this week. Iran's only nuclear reactor at Bushehr, meanwhile, provides less than two per cent of the country's energy needs.

The talks in Almaty wrap up later today.