Despite unexpected progress in last week’s nuclear talks, U.S. and European governments face a difficult path to a possible deal with Iran, U.S. officials and experts warn, as politics and a deep-seated mistrust on both sides threaten to scuttle even the modest gains made so far.
Only days after negotiations that Iran hailed as a possible “turning point” in the nuclear crisis, diplomats and analysts offered a sober assessment of the obstacles to a genuine breakthrough, including factional fighting inside Iran over whether to agree to limits on Iran’s nuclear program.
New evidence of the internal debate surfaced Friday when Iranian leaders issued conflicting statements about the negotiations and whether Iran should ever accede to nuclear restrictions. A powerful conservative cleric staunchly defended Iran’s “inalienable right” to nuclear energy during Friday prayer services in Tehran, saying no country could dictate the amount or types of enriched uranium Iran produced.
“Any proposal which denies the people their rights is dismissed by the nation, and no official has the right to compromise in this regard,” said Hojjatoleslam Kazem Seddiqi, a senior cleric who is considered close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader.
Negotiators from Iran and six world powers met for two days in Almaty, Kazakhstan, last week in the first direct talks on Iran’s nuclear program in eight months. The negotiations, which began amid low expectations, ended Wednesday with an agreement to expand the talks in the coming weeks to include technical consultations and another round of formal negotiations in April.
The six-nation bloc — the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — attempted to break a months-long impasse with a new proposal that offered Iran partial relief from economic sanctions while showing new flexibility on demands that Iran restrict parts of its nuclear program.
The proposals drew a favorable response from Iranian diplomats in Almaty and from other prominent officials immediately after the talks adjourned. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, an MIT-trained engineer widely regarded as a moderate, said the nuclear negotiations were “on the right track and moving in the right direction.”
“Our case is neither like North Korea’s nor Libya’s,” Salehi said in an interview broadcast in Iran on Friday evening. “It will be resolved. . . . We have nothing to hide and we have always been clean.”
Obama administration officials on Friday continued to applaud Almaty’s surprising, if modest, turnaround, with one senior official calling the talks “constructive.”
“I don’t want to overpromise, but we’re encouraged,” said the official, speaking to reporters accompanying Secretary of State John F. Kerry during a visit to Europe. “Our people who were there felt the sanctions have gotten Iran’s attention,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe diplomatically sensitive negotiations.
U.S. officials also said that Iran has not formally responded to the Almaty proposal or agreed to shut down a single centrifuge. Current and former administration officials cited a decade-long history of disappointments and setbacks in previous efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.
“Iran has a long track record for feints, misdirection and failure to deliver,” said Clifford Kupchan, a former State Department official and Middle East analyst for the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm.
Most recently, Iran made a diplomatic about-face in the summer after appearing to agree to a deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Officials for the U.N. nuclear watchdog announced in June that Iran had decided to allow access to military facilities where its scientists are suspected of having conducted secret nuclear research. But before the negotiators could work out details, the Iranians changed their minds.
Such episodes have fueled suspicions that Iran is using diplomacy as a stalling tactic. Conservative U.S. lawmakers and think tanks already have begun criticizing the proposed concessions that negotiators offered in Almaty, arguing that it’s too early to talk about easing the pressure of sanctions on Iran.
Of particular concern to administration critics is a reported offer to lift sanctions that prohibit Iran from exchanging its oil for gold and other precious metals. Iran already faces massive restrictions on oil sales, including a boycott on oil imports to Europe. U.S. officials declined to discuss details of the confidential proposal.
“Allowing Iran to resume trade in gold would drive a significant hole through our financial sanctions and undermine our efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said in a statement.
Other analysts argued that concessions were necessary for any chance of diplomatic success.
“The arguments being made are politically convenient, but they simply are not realistic,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “Everyone should be wanting tangible results instead of holding on to positions that won’t get us any closer to eliminating the most important proliferation risks.”
Rezaian reported from Tehran.