ISTANBUL // Six major powers and Iran failed to reach an agreement about Tehran’s nuclear programme during two days of talks in Istanbul, bringing the diplomatic process to a standstill.
No agreement was reached and no date was set for a new round of talks, the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said after the talks ended shortly after noon yesterday. “This is not the conclusion I had hoped for. I am disappointed.”
Both sides insisted they were ready to talk again in the future, but they also said the other side would have to make the first move. “The door remains open, our phone lines remain open,” Lady Ashton said.
“We can continue this afternoon,” the Iranian negotiator Saaed Jalili said, but within a framework of a “common logic”.
The Istanbul talks were supposed to mark the start of detailed discussions about the Iranian nuclear programme, which the West thinks may have military purposes.
In December, at their first meeting after an interval of more than a year, both sides agreed to use the Istanbul conference to look for ways to end the crisis.
But Iran, which maintains its programme is peaceful, insisted on two preconditions, Lady Ashton said: the right to continue enriching uranium and the lifting of sanctions against Tehran.
Speaking on behalf of the P5+1 group, made up of the five UN veto powers – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – plus Germany, Lady Ashton said the Iranians refused to talk about proposals that included an updated model of a so-called uranium swap. Under such an agreement, Iran would transfer low-enriched uranium to another country in exchange for receiving, from abroad, a higher-enriched uranium for use in a medical reactor.
Mr Jalili rejected her accusation that Iran was responsible for the collapse of the talks and said Iran had not imposed preconditions but had merely stated “prerequisites” in insisting it had the right to enrich uranium.
“We have to respect each other’s right,” he said. Mr Jalili also raised the issue of Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons programme. “Who gave Israel nuclear arms?” he asked.
Although both sides underlined their willingness to hold further discussions, diplomats in Istanbul said it was difficult to see how that could be achieved. “To agree on another meeting, you will have to know what you talk about,” a senior European official said.
The collapse of the negotiation process came one day after Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, told a government-ordered Iraq war inquiry in London that Iran represented a threat that the West had to deal with. The United States has not ruled out military action against Tehran, and Israel is said to be considering military steps as well.
A senior US diplomat, speaking after the collapse of the talks, said there was still time for diplomacy, as the Iranian programme seemed to have run into problems.
“Clearly, the sanctions have had an impact,“ he said. “Clearly, according to public reports, there are signs that the Iranian nuclear programme has slowed. So I think there is time and space for diplomacy.”
Other diplomats said the talks in Istanbul almost broke down as early as Friday when the Iranian side insisted that Tehran’s enrichment activities were off limits for the negotiations, despite calls by the United Nations to suspend enrichment. It also demanded an end of UN sanctions.
The way representatives of the western powers saw it, that left almost nothing to talk about.
In a meeting that lasted almost until midnight on Friday, delegates agreed to meet again yesterday shortly before noon, after a separate meeting of the Vienna group, comprising the United States, Russia and France, in the morning. The Vienna Group discussed ways to resurrect the proposal for the uranium swap, diplomats said. After the Vienna group meeting, the six powers and Iran met for a final plenary session.
One western source said: “There is a difference between aims you want to achieve at the end of the negotiation process and conditions you put before those negotiations begin. You cannot put the aim up front without taking the first step.”
Lady Ashton and western diplomats were anxious to underline that the process had not completely broken down, but that the Iranians now had to think about what to do next. One western diplomat said: “It is a period of reflection.”
But Mr Jalili said it was the six nations facing Iran at the table in Istanbul who would have to do some thinking. They would “come up with a common root to continue with these talks”, he said. Lady Ashton and the US official underlined that there were no differences in the camp of the six powers.
Before the Istanbul meeting, western diplomats had expressed the hope for a more conciliatory Iranian approach, because the latest round of sanctions have slowed down the progress of Tehran’s nuclear programme and because a computer worm has damaged some technical facilities. But in the talks, the Iranians surprised negotiators with their assertive position.
Host nation Turkey, in an effort to underpin its ambition to become a regional power broker, was keen to see the Istanbul talks end with at least some progress. Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, stayed in a hotel close to the venue of the talks and held meetings with both sides to prevent the collapse of the negotiations, a source said.