MOSCOW — After two grueling days of nuclear negotiations, diplomats from Iran and six world powers agreed on at least one thing: they were not yet ready to let the recently re-launched diplomatic process collapse.
That prospect had loomed over the third round of Iran nuclear talks this year, as Iranian negotiators for the first time gave a detailed response to an international proposal asking it to halt enriching uranium to 20 percent of the isotope needed for nuclear explosions. But while Iran engaged in the most substantive discussion of its nuclear program to date, Western diplomats said, the discussions also revealed daunting gaps in the two sides’ positions and worldviews that made some diplomats question whether Iran was serious about the negotiations.
“We set out our respective positions in what were detailed, tough and frank exchanges,” lead international negotiator Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, told journalists at a press conference at the conclusion of the talks in Moscow Tuesday. “We have begun to tackle the critical issues. However, it remains clear that there are significant gaps between the substance of the two positions.”
While they achieved no breakthrough, negotiators from Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany agreed to continue talks on a lower political level.
Nuclear experts from Iran and the P5+1 will hold technical meetings in Istanbul July 3, Ashton said. The date originally proposed was July 2, but Iran's lead negotiator reminded the group that would be the 24th anniversary of the day the US shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing over 200 people. That aside, all agreed the July 3 meeting should be followed by a meeting between Ashton's deputy, Helga Schmid, and Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri, at a date to be determined.
Ashton said she would then be in direct contact with Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili about prospects for arranging a future political level meeting, which has not been scheduled at this time.
“The choice is Iran’s,” Ashton said. “We expect Iran to decide whether it is willing to make diplomacy work … and to address the concerns of the international community.”
The outcome reflected a willingness on both sides to give diplomacy more time on the assumption that each will gain new leverage. Iran will continue to amass enriched uranium while draconian sanctions will continue to depress Iran’s oil exports and overall economy.
“We came to Moscow to see if we could get a detailed response to our proposal,” a senior American official told journalists in Moscow after the conclusion of talks Tuesday. “All of that occurred here…We had two days of very intense, tough, very frank conversations.”
“Indeed, here, Iran for [the] first time responded quite directly to every element of the proposal we put down on the table — quite thoroughly,” the official said. “We did not agree with everything, but they did directly respond.”
Jalili also offered some praise for the Moscow talks — and by implication, his international interlocutors.
“These talks were more objective, more serious, and more realistic,” Jalili told journalists in a press conference following the negotiations.
But publicly, as he had privately, he raised objections to the record of the past few years of UN and Western sanctions against Iran and the unwillingness of the P5+1 to recognize what he termed Iran’s “inalienable right to enrich to all levels.” (US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has suggested that Iran could be allowed to enrich uranium but only after it satisfies international concerns about its program.)
“Steps can only be achieved when [parties] stop [their] aggressive attitude,” Jalili said in Farsi, through a translator.
Iranian and Western diplomats said Russian negotiators — who hosted the talks — played a key role in working behind the scenes for a compromise plan to keep the diplomatic process moving. Western diplomats said in one bilateral meeting with the Iranians Tuesday, Russia basically threatened Iran that if it did not agree to the proposed sequence of meetings, the process would collapse. Earlier Tuesday, a source close to the Iranian delegation credited Russia for relaying ideas to bridge the two sides’ positions.
The agreed sequence of meetings, beginning with technical talks in Istanbul next month, “will become a three-step reinforced process which will hopefully compel greater engagement and acceptance by Iran of what needs to be done,” a Western diplomat at the talks told Al-Monitor Tuesday on condition of anonymity. “No doubt this was tough, but we have to give credit to the Iranians,” he continued. “They did engage and they did elaborate a view on our proposal.”
“However, PowerPoint is not progress,” he continued, referring to the Iranian negotiators’ presentation Monday giving a point-by-point rejection to the P5+1’s proposal. “They need to come much further still.”
That proposal required that Iran halt 20 percent enrichment, send out its stockpile of more than 100 kilograms of 20 percent uranium and close a facility at Fordow, which is burrowed into a mountain near Qom and thus well-defended from attack. In return, Iran was offered fuel and safety upgrades for a reactor that makes medical isotopes and spare parts for Iran’s ancient fleet of old US planes.
Iran’s proposal includes recognition of its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and inclusion in discussions on regional security issues such as political unrest in Syria and Bahrain. “We are glad Iran responded in the direct and specific ways it did, but have quite a long way to go and need to see if Iran is prepared to take the steps to go there,” the American diplomat said.
A Western diplomat in Washington told Al-Monitor that the Moscow talks — which followed meetings in Istanbul in April and Baghdad in May — “didn’t move backward but they didn’t move forward very much.”
Progress before US presidential elections in November seems unlikely, given US President Barack Obama’s reluctance to be seen as giving in to Iranian demands.
However, despite periodic Israeli threats to take unilateral military action against Iran if it continues to amass ever larger quantities of enriched uranium, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz suggested Tuesday that there is still much more time for diplomacy and economic sanctions on Iran to play out
Although he told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that the time for diplomacy and sanctions was “limited,” Mofaz said that military action was a “last resort” and that Iran’s adversaries could wait until Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decides to take “the last step for having a bomb.” According to US intelligence, Khamenei has not made such a decision.
Mofaz also said that Iran’s nuclear program was “a problem the superpowers should take care of” and that before using force, one should ask “how long will we delay the Iranian program” and “what will happen the day after in the Middle East?”
Al-Monitor Washington correspondent Barbara Slavin contributed from Washington.