World powers give Iran new offer at crunch talks
Feb 26. AFP. ALMATY
World powers were Tuesday offering Iran a softening of sanctions in exchange for concessions over its controversial nuclear programme, in crunch talks in Kazakhstan aimed at ending a decade of deadlock in the crisis.
The two-day meeting in the Kazakh city of Almaty comes as sanctions bite against the Islamic republic and Israel still refuses to rule out air strikes to knock out Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons drive.
The world powers will offer Iran permission to resume its gold and precious metals trade as well some international banking activity which are currently under sanctions, Western sources close to the negotiations told AFP.
But in exchange, Iran will have to limit sensitive uranium enrichment operations that the world powers fear could be used to make a nuclear bomb, the sources added.
The first round of closed-door talks started at around 0830 GMT under high security at the Rixos hotel in this Kazakh city under the shadow of the Tien Shan mountains, a Western official said, adding it was not clear how long the first session would last. Little apparent progress has been made since the last such talks in Moscow in June 2012 ended without any breakthrough and Iranian officials have insisted they will offer no special concessions at the two-day talks.
“We have prepared a good and updated offer for the talks, which we believe is balanced and a fair basis for constructive talks,” said Michael Mann, the spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
“The offer addresses international concerns… on the nature of the Iranian nuclear programme, but is also responsive to Iranian ideas,” he said.
A Western official involved in the negotiations said the offer would still insist Iran stop enriching uranium to 20 percent and shuts down its controversial Fordo plant where such activity occurs.
But Iran denies it is developing nuclear weapons and wants the world to respect its international “right to enrich” uranium – something current UN sanctions say it cannot do because of its refusal to cooperate with nuclear inspectors.
In a sign of the tough negotiations ahead, a source in the Iranian delegation said the issue of 20 percent enrichment was not a subject his country was ready to discuss at this stage.
“We don’t expect any breakthrough. The Iranians have made different declarations in the last days. It depends if you take the positive or the negative ones,” said one Western official who asked not to be identified.
World powers are represented at the table by the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany – the so-called P5+1 – with the Iranian team headed by top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
“We will not accept anything beyond our obligations and will not accept anything less than our rights,” Jalili declared before setting off for Kazakhstan.
The talks essentially come down to tough negotiating sessions – replete with power point presentations – between Jalili and Ashton who is mandated to speak on behalf of the world powers.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow was hoping that the talks would now move into a phase of “bargaining” rather than just offering proposals.
“There needs to be a political will to move into that phase. We call on all participants not to lose any more time,” he said, quoted by Russian news agencies.
The talks come with the lingering threat of Israel launching a unilateral strike on Iran just as it had done against the Osirak nuclear reactor in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1981.
Such action would almost certainly drag the United States into a conflict it clearly wants to avoid and leave the global economy in peril due to the impact on the price of oil.
Strikes would also risk sparking a broader Middle East conflict – a danger the volatile region can hardly afford with the violence raging in Syria.
Iran already has a nuclear power plant in the southern city of Bushehr – built with Russian help – but Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has described atomic weapons as a “sin”.