By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 9:26 PM
ISTANBUL - Diplomatic efforts to end the eight-year-old impasse over Iran's nuclear program ran aground Saturday after Iranian officials refused to bargain with the United States and other world powers unless they first agreed to conditions including an immediate halt to economic sanctions.
The standoff, played out over two days inside a picturesque palace on the shores of the Bosporus, ended with dueling diplomatic statements and deepening pessimism about prospects for solving one of the Obama administration's most vexing security challenges.
There was no discussion of further talks in the near future.
"This is not the conclusion I had hoped for," Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign-policy chief, said after the talks ended shortly past noon. She acknowledged that negotiators never came close to tackling the core issues, such as Iran's uranium enrichment program, because of Iran's insistence on concessions from the West.
"These preconditions are not a way to proceed," Ashton said.
U.S. and European officials said, however, they were encouraged by the cohesion shown by the six countries on the other side of the negotiating table. Those countries - the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - have often disagreed on Iran, but the group was in lock step in their opposition to Iran's proposed conditions, according to U.S. and E.U. officials who participated in the talks.
The group's unanimity could enhance prospects for a broad international agreement on future sanctions or other punitive measures to force concessions from Iran in the future, the officials said.
"The Iranians are tough negotiators, and their aim was to test for splits [among the six nations] and to see if they could extract concessions on their preconditions," said a senior Obama administration official who participated in the meetings. "They left with a pretty clear impression of the unity of this group."'Door remains open'
In 2002, Iranian dissidents disclosed the existence of a massive uranium enrichment plant that Iran was secretly constructing. It was the first of a series of revelations that raised questions about Iran's possible pursuit of a nuclear bomb.
Negotiations between Iran and the six world powers resumed last month in Geneva after a pause of more than a year. In those talks, Iran agreed to a second round of meetings in Istanbul, raising hopes that it might be ready to consider limits on its nuclear program.
Western diplomats arrived in Istanbul with a list of what they called "practical steps" that Iran could adopt to prove that its nuclear intentions are peaceful. Among them was a revamped version of last year's Tehran Research Reactor proposal, in which France and Russia agreed to provide Iran with much-needed fuel rods for a medical research reactor if Iran would part with a large chunk of its stockpile of enriched uranium. Such a deal would have left Iran with less than the minimum amount of nuclear fuel needed to make a single atomic bomb.
But Iran opened the talks on a jarring note, insisting it would not discuss any of the measures until Western powers agreed to end all economic sanctions and formally recognize Iran's right to develop a wide range of nuclear technologies, including uranium enrichment. Iran has insisted that it has no plans to make atomic weapons.
After a frustrating start, the talks devolved into what one U.S. official described as "circular discussions" interrupted by lengthy breaks. At one point Friday, the Iranian delegation left the negotiations for Friday prayers followed by a lunch.
Afterward, chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili stayed away for several more hours, complaining that he had a headache.
After the talks broke Saturday, Jalili spoke to reporters for nearly an hour, lashing out at Western powers for insisting on curbs for Iran's nuclear program while sitting on large stockpiles of nuclear weapons. But he stopped short of conceding that diplomacy had reached an impasse.
"We are always open to dialogue," he said.
The United States and the E.U. also held open the possibility of future talks but made clear that the next move is Iran's.
"The door remains open," Ashton said. "The choice remains in Iran's hands."Increased isolation
While expectations for the Istanbul meeting had been low, diplomats and some security analysts hailed the unanimity of the six world powers as a significant achievement and one that bodes well for the future.
George Perkovich, director of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Studies, a Washington nonprofit group, said the talks had resulted in Iran "further isolating itself and losing support."
"It had hoped to turn eastward and demonstrate that China, India and others in the East would defend it against sanctions," Perkovich said. "That effort failed, so Iran has nowhere else to turn."
Iran's increased isolation comes at a time when the country is suffering economically from the collective pressure of four rounds of U.N. sanctions. Iran's uranium enrichment program has also suffered significant setbacks, including a computer virus that damaged hundreds of centrifuges, U.S. officials have confirmed.
"Clearly there are signs that Iran's nuclear program has slowed," said the senior Obama administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the talks. "I think there is time and space for diplomacy."
Special correspondent Gul Tuysuz contributed to this report.