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World powers, Iran 'far apart' in nuclear stalemate
by Staff Writers
Almaty, Kazakhstan (AFP) April 07, 2013

Iran nuclear talks at impasse but not seen over yet
Almaty, Kazakhstan (AFP) April 07, 2013 - Talks between world powers and Iran to find a solution to end tensions over the Iranian nuclear drive have once again hit an impasse, even if the diplomatic process is not yet seen to be at risk of collapsing.

Negotiators from world powers came to the snow-peaked city of Almaty for the latest round of talks with cautious optimism that they could make some progress following an encouraging February meeting at the same venue.

But the talks ended with both sides -- according to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton -- "far apart" amid dogged insistence from Iran that its nuclear "rights" be recognised.

The sticking point was the contents of a package from the world powers that proposes easing some sanctions against the Islamic republic in exchange for Tehran curbing its uranium enrichment activities.

But Western officials complained that Iran had failed in these talks to give "a concrete, comprehensive and complete response" to the offer on the table despite earlier statements of good will.

"There is a tremendous lack of trust -- distrust -- on both sides," a senior US official said on condition of not being identified.

"It is fair to say that Iran is willing to take very limited steps on its nuclear programme while expecting very significant results in return," the official added.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit to Turkey on Sunday, warned: "This is not an endless process.... You can't just talk for the sake of talking."

The intransigent mood for the Almaty talks was set when chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili -- a hardliner close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- demanded immediate recognition of Iran's "right" to enrich uranium.

The world powers -- comprised of the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany and known collectively as the P5+1 -- suspect Iran harbours ambitions to build an atomic bomb under the guise of its civilian nuclear energy programme.

That view has been supported by Iran's refusal to fully cooperate with UN nuclear inspectors and its failure to disclose in a timely manner the existence of a mountain bunker called Fordo that enriches uranium to high levels just a few technical steps from weapons-grade material.

Iran's top foe Israel meanwhile watches the inconclusive process with impatience and has not ruled out air strikes against Fordo and other sites should the negotiations drag on.

The United States has maintained that it, too, is keeping the option of military action open if all else fails.

With stakes so high, neither the P5+1 nor Iran want the negotiations to collapse.

But Iran's negotiating position is complicated by presidential elections in June in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must step down after the maximum two terms.

While it is Khamenei who sets Iran's line in the nuclear talks, the elections are bolstering rigidity on the issue from loyalist officials vying to succeed Ahmadinejad.

Ashton said that, despite her disappointment, she would call Jalili within days to find a way to move beyond Almaty and agree on a new meeting.

"The important thing is that the negotiations have not fallen through, there is no apparent acrimony, and the process will probably survive until Iran's presidential election," said Shashank Joshi, an analyst with the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

"Both sides are eager to keep the overall diplomatic process alive," he said.

Western officials said some aspects of the latest talks were encouraging because there was genuine discussion instead of just a reading out of rehearsed "set piece" positions as in the past.

Iran and world powers have failed to break the deadlock in the crisis over Tehran's nuclear drive, with the EU's top diplomat and chief negotiator saying the positions were still "far apart".

After two days of exhausting diplomacy in the Kazakh city of Almaty, no new date was agreed for the resumption of talks searching for an elusive breakthrough after more than a decade of tensions.

"It is fair to say that Iran is willing to take very limited steps on its nuclear programme while expecting very significant results in return," a senior US official told reporters on condition of anonymity on Saturday.

"They put forward some minimal ideas but expected a great return and a quite disproportionate return."

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili praised the talks as "comprehensive" but indicated that Tehran wanted to see more put on the table by the world powers to "gain the confidence" of the Iranian people.

The world powers -- comprised of the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany and known collectively as the P5+1 --had offered some easing of the sanctions that have hurt Iran's economy in the past two years in return for Tehran accepting limits on its nuclear programme.

But speaking after the talks wrapped up, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, chief negotiator for the P5+1, admitted that they were still waiting to see "real engagement" from Iran over their proposal.

"It became clear that the positions (of the world powers) and Iran remain far apart on the substance," Ashton told reporters.

Britain, as one of the participants in the talks, called Iran's position "far short" of what was needed.

"Lengthy discussions took place on some issues, but a wide gap remains between the parties. Iran's current position falls far short of what is needed to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough," Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement.

Unlike at the previous round of talks in Almaty in February which ended more cordially, the two sides did not agree a time and a place to hold the next meeting.

Instead, Ashton said the sides had decided to go back to their capitals to discuss what to do next and promised that she would be in touch with Jalili.

-- Substance not there yet --

The US official said Ashton would be calling Jalili within a matter of days, adding that the talks were much more substantive than they had been in the past.

"It was really a lot of give and take -- quite different from the last times. But you still have to get to the substance. The substance is not there yet," the US official said.

Jalili offered little hope of Iran proposing concessions on the main sticking point in the talks -- Tehran's insistence on its right to enrich uranium on its soil.

"Now they (the world powers) must work to gain the confidence of the Iranian people," said Jalili, a hardline conservative close to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"We believe that the right to enrich is an inalienable right of the Iranian people -- whether we are talking about (to a level of) five percent or 20 percent," Jalili said.

The clock is running down on diplomacy to solve the crisis, with Iran's archfoe Israel refusing to rule out air strikes against Iran to halt its nuclear drive.

Israel's reaction to the latest round of talks was to call for a "firmer stand" with Iran.

"It is time for the world to take a firmer stand and tell the Iranians in no uncertain terms that the masquerade of negotiations is about to end," Israel's Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said Saturday.

"Israel has already warned that the Iranians are using the rounds of negotiations to win time to advance their uranium enrichment to the stage of acquiring a nuclear weapon," he said.

However few analysts had expected an instant breakthrough in these talks, especially with Iran's presidential elections looming in June and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stepping down after serving the maximum two terms.

Iran insists on international recognition of what it says is its "right" to enrich uranium, a key component of the nuclear fuel cycle which can also be used to make the explosive core of an atomic bomb.

But the world powers say Tehran must end enrichment to high levels and verifiably suspend operations at the Fordo mountain bunker where such activity takes place before recognising Iran's rights to less threatening nuclear activities.

Iran denies it is developing the atomic bomb and argues that it requires a nuclear programme solely for peaceful medical and energy needs.


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