Sunday, April 7, 2013

Almaty talks: a winding road ahead

ALMATY, April 7, 2013

After two days of intensive nuclear talks, Iran and the six global powers have failed to reconcile their differences over an approach that would build greater confidence about each other's intentions and lead to the normalisation of ties.

"It became clear that the positions... remain far apart on the substance," the European Union's foreign policy chief Catharine Ashton said after the conclusion of talks in Almaty on Saturday. "We have therefore agreed that all sides will go back to [their] capitals to evaluate where we stand in the process," she observed.

Plan of action

Saeed Jalili, head of the Iranian delegation, also acknowledged that "some distance" still remained to be covered between the positions held by Iran, and U.S. Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany. In a statement, Mr. Jalili said issued a plan of action that clubbed its previous proposals, aired 10 months ago during the Moscow talks, with ideas generated during two other rounds of negotiations — one in February that was also held in Almaty and the second in Istanbul where technical experts from both sided had last month met.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov confirmed the two sides were "unable to achieve a breakthrough and are still on the threshold." However, he acknowledged that the talks were "definitely a step forward." Russia Today quoted Mr. Ryabkov as saying the sextet had called upon Tehran to halt enrichment beyond the five per cent level.

Iran did not appear to reject the suggestion, but insisted that all "confidence building measures" must be contained within a larger comprehensive package. Addressing the media after the first round of talks on Friday, Ali Baqeri, number two in the Iranian delegation, said "actions called confidence-building measures should be considered as part of a comprehensive plan, not separate from it." In earlier rounds, the sextet wanted Iran halt production of uranium enriched to a 20 per cent level.

Mr. Baqeri seemed to be alluding to the Russian step-by-step proposal where the sextet was to respond to every step taken by Iran to restore confidence about the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme with a phased lifting of sanctions. Firm on entering a fool-proof deal that would have the lifting of all sanctions as the end-game, the Iranian position differed markedly with the rather piecemeal approach adopted by the western powers during the first day of talks. Bloomberg quoted Ali Vaez, a senior analyst with the Washington based International Crisis Group, as saying Iran's insistence on knowing the "endgame" rather than making an interim agreement first put the talks at risk.

European Union spokesman Michael Mann said Iran's interlocutors had entered the talks to get "concrete" responses to their six-week old proposal on confidence building measures. Western officials said that instead of responding to the specific proposals, Iran had only reiterated that it was looking for a comprehensive nuclear solution.

Media briefings and statements that have appeared in the context of the talks reveal differences in perception within the global powers — especially Russia and the western participants. Contradicting western officials, Mr. Ryabkov said it was "an indisputable fact" that the Iranian delegation "addressed concrete elements of the position outlined by the group of six." He added that the Iranian response was "evidence that the negotiations are serious". "We are not going over the same things and that's refreshing."

No quick-fixes

Assuming that there were no quick-fixes, Iran said it was prepared for the long haul. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told Mehr News Agency that the road ahead would be difficult. He said Iran was prepared for "great obstacles" that can be overcome only with "patience and resistance". China, which has of late been aligning its West Asia positions with Russia, has counselled patience and persistence in the dialogue. Ma Zhaoxu, Assistant Chinese Foreign Minister, told Xinhua that a phase of "hard talks" had commenced.
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