x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Iran and six world powers suspend nuclear talks

High-level talks meant to dispel suspicions that Tehran might turn its nuclear activities into making weapons have been suspended.

Iran and six world powers are suspending high-level talks meant to dispel suspicions that Tehran might turn its nuclear activities into making weapons, the EU’s foreign policy chief said yesterday.

The announcement followed two days of intensive meetings that failed to bridge differences.Catherine Ashton said future meetings on a senior level were possible. But she told reporters that both sides needed to first stage lower-level talks.

“We expect Iran to decide whether it is willing to make diplomacy work, to focus on reaching agreement on concrete confidence-building steps, and to address the concerns of the international community,” she said in a statement.Ms Ashton further said experts will meet on a technical level on July 4 in Istanbul.

Iran praised the nuclear talks with world powers as more realistic than previous rounds but said its counterparts now faced a choice over whether to change a dead-end approach in the crisis.

“These talks were more serious and more realistic, going beyond declarations of simple statements,” the chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili told reporters.

Israel, the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed state, has repeatedly warned it could take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if it deems diplomacy to have failed.

The latest cycle of stormy negotiations began in April in Istanbul after a tense 15-month hiatus, during which Iran accelerated its 

uranium enrichment while the West ratcheted up sanctions and Israel rattled its sabres. Effectively, Iran and the West are calling on each other to make concessions upfront before they deliver.

The immediate goal of the six world powers – the UN Security Council’s five permanent members – the US, Russia, China, Britain, and France, along with Germany – is for Iran to halt enriching uranium to 20 per cent, which is within striking distance of making bomb-grade material.

The so-called P5+1 also want Iran to close the previously secret underground bunker at Fordo where most of this activity takes place, and send abroad its stockpile of the material. A western diplomat summarised these demands as “stop, shut and ship”.

Iran, which insists its nuclear programme is peaceful, has said it is only purifying to 20 per cent to fuel a medical research reactor.

Tehran repeatedly has signalled it could halt this activity if the price is right.

In Moscow, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Mr Jalili, made clear that price was sanctions relief. But his primary demand was recognition of Iran’s “right” to a domestic nuclear fuel cycle, which would mean acceptance of uranium enrichment to 3.5 per cent, the level required to fuel electricity-generating reactors.

The UN Security Council is, however, united in its view that that right is dependent on Iran providing far greater transparency on its nuclear programme.

In high-level talks earlier this month, the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency failed to persuade Iran to let it inspect the Parchin military complex near Tehran.

European Union and US sanctions targeting Iran’s vital oil and banking sectors come fully into effect at the end of the month, but have already battered the Iranian economy. The West believes these punitive measures brought Iran back to the negotiating table and views them as a trump card.

Iran has complained that the P5+1 has offered it only meagre incentives to halt 20 per cent enrichment.

Optimists suspect the P5+1’s offer may have been a maximalist opening gambit in a long and laborious negotiating process.

“The six (P5+1) need to put more meat into reciprocity, but then Iran has to offer more on what it’s prepared to offer on the 20 per cent issue,” said Sir Richard Dalton, a British former ambassador in Tehran and now a senior fellow at the Chatham House think tank.

Trita Parsi, an Iran expert in Washington, believes the EU can stave off a crisis by agreeing to postpone – but not lift – its oil embargo for six months if Iran reins in its 20 per cent enrichment for that period.

That would maintain pressure on Iran but give diplomacy breathing space while US president Barack Obama’s room for manoeuvre is hobbled ahead of his re-election bid in November.

Assuming he wins a second term, he would then be able to resist pressure from Congress, his Republican rivals and the “obstinate Israeli prime minister” to make concessions that Tehran would have to reciprocate in kind, Mr Parsi argued.

Otherwise Iran is likely to retaliate against the EU embargo on July 1, Mr Parsi, author of a new book on Mr Obama’s diplomacy with Iran, A Single Roll of the Dice, said in an interview. “The problem is Iran’s escalation options are fewer and more and more dangerous … Both sides are running out of ways of making life difficult for the other without risking war.”


* With additional reporting from Associated Press and Reuters