It’s been eight months since they last met, but negotiators representing Iran and six leading industrial powers acknowledged Monday that they may have little new to say to one another when the two sides come together for talks about Iran’s nuclear future.
Negotiations on proposed limits on Iran’s nuclear program are set to begin Tuesday in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where expectations are nearly as low as the frigid temperatures in the former Kazakh capital city. In public comments over the past week, U.S. and Iranian officials alike insisted that the onus was on the other side to make key concessions that could lead to a nuclear deal.
Obama administration officials have set a low bar, expressing hope only that the Almaty meeting will yield cordial engagement and an agreement to hold further talks in the spring and summer. One senior U.S. official, briefing reporters on the eve of the talks, said small steps this week could lead to a breakthrough in the future.
“If Iran engages with us tomorrow and begins to discuss the concrete steps they will take . . . we can move forward,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in discussing the U.S. diplomatic position ahead of the talks. “They can get to where they want to go.”
Iranian politicians, meanwhile, have urged the country’s negotiators to concede nothing on Tehran’s key demand: international recognition of the nation’s right to develop its nuclear infrastructure, including the capacity to enrich uranium. A statement issued Sunday by parliament warned against compromising on Iran’s “inalienable nuclear rights.”
“We propose that the United States and its Western allies accept the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear realities and change their policy of confrontation to interaction,” the statement said. It added that Iran’s “nuclear train, which is moving on the rails of peaceful goals, will never stop.”
The talks in Almaty will be the first since June to bring together diplomats from Iran and the “P5-plus-1” powers — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany. Three rounds of negotiations last spring and summer ended in failure, as Iran balked at demands that it freeze production of a type of enriched uranium that is used to fuel nuclear power plants but that also can be easily converted into highly enriched fissile material for nuclear weapons. Iran is insisting on immediate relief from U.N. and Western economic sanctions as a precondition for any concessions on its nuclear program.
The senior U.S. official said Iran will be presented with a “somewhat modified” proposal in Almaty that will take into account Iranian concerns about sanctions, which have cut the country’s global oil exports by half while driving inflation to an annual level approaching 50 percent.
“We have tried to address some of Iran’s concerns to help gain traction in this negotiation without giving up some of the fundamental principles,” the official said.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Monday reiterated his warning that time for diplomacy is limited, and he said the United States will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran.
“There is only time if Iran makes the decision to come to the table and to negotiate in good faith,” Kerry told reporters during a joint news conference in London with his British counterpart, William Hague. “We are prepared to negotiate in good faith, in mutual respect, in an effort to avoid whatever terrible consequences could follow failure.”
U.S. officials and Iran experts acknowledged numerous obstacles to a deal on the Iranian side, where the prospect of nuclear concessions has become an issue in the domestic political debate.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called enthusiastically for direct negotiations with the United States, indicating that he would like to lead such talks before his term as president ends in August. Such a move could increase his political stature and guarantee him a future role in Iranian politics.
However, many of Ahmadinejad’s opponents — including some close to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — insist that no nuclear deal should be reached until the president leaves office, suggesting that Iran could try to drag out the negotiating process until at least the summer.
“Khamenei doesn’t want Ahmadinejad to be able to take credit for a deal,” said Dina Esfandiary, a nonproliferation expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “If talks fail after elections, he can blame it on his new, inexperienced president.”
Rezaian reported from Tehran. Anne Gearan in London contributed to this report.