MOSCOW: Iran and world powers blamed each other yesterday for the lack of progress in talks on Tehran’s nuclear programme, which has dimmed hopes of a breakthrough to avert the threat of a new Middle East war.
On the second and final day of talks in Moscow, frustration mounted over the failure to move any closer to ending a decade of negotiations over Iranian work which the United States and its allies fear is designed for building nuclear weapons.
If talks collapse, nerves could grow on financial markets over the danger of higher oil prices and conflict in the Middle East because Israel has threatened to bomb Iranian nuclear sites if diplomacy fails to stop Tehran getting the bomb.
“We did not come to Moscow only for discussions. We came to Moscow for a resolution. But we believe the opposite side is not ready to reach a resolution,” an Iranian diplomat said.
Iran says its nuclear programme has only non-military purposes but the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany want Tehran to stop enriching uranium to levels that bring it close to acquiring weapons-grade material.
Iran’s negotiators want relief from economic sanctions and are pushing the six powers to acknowledge its right to enrich uranium, something they refuse to do until Tehran allows United Nations inspections of its work.
A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is leading the world powers’ delegation, said Monday’s talks had been intense and tough.
A Western diplomat made clear late on Monday Iran needed to do more to address proposals made by the six powers at the last round of talks.
“Our key requirements are: Stop, shut and ship,” said the Western diplomat, who was present at the talks.
He was referring to demands for Iran to stop producing higher-grade uranium, ship any stockpile out of the country and close down an underground enrichment facility, Fordow.
But an Iranian official said Tehran’s delegation had made detailed proposals on the first day of talks and the six powers had responded with one-line answers that lacked any depth.
“Our feeling is that the agenda this group is following is not suitable for the arguments that Iran was making,” he said. “We believe we are at a crossroads. And today the other side has to choose a path.”
Russia has hopes
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who leads Russia’s delegation at the talks, said diplomacy could still be salvaged.
“I don’t think anything will break down. We will have a reasonable outcome,” said Ryabkov.
The Moscow talks follow two rounds of negotiations since diplomacy resumed in April after a 15-month hiatus during which the West cranked up sanctions pressure and Israel repeated its threat to bomb Iranian nuclear sites if diplomacy failed.
“We haven’t reached an agreement but it is more complex than that. We haven’t got to the end of the conversation,” said one Western diplomat present at the talks in the Russian capital.
A series of United Nations Security Council resolutions since 2006 have demanded Iran suspend all its enrichment-related activities. Tehran denies planning to build nuclear weapons and says its program is purely for civilian purposes.
Rather than halt enrichment – a process which refines uranium for use as fuel or, if done to a much higher level, nuclear bomb material – Iran has increased its activities.
Experts said a breakthrough was unlikely, with the six powers – known as P5+1 because the group consists of the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – wary of making concessions that would let Tehran draw out the talks and gain the time needed to develop nuclear weapons capability.
An EU embargo on Iranian oil takes full effect on July 1 and new US financial sanctions some days before that. Iran’s crude oil exports have fallen by some 40 percent this year, according to the International Energy Agency.
Increasing the pressure, Israel – widely believed to be the only nuclear-armed country in the Middle East – has said time is running out before Iran’s nuclear facilities, some of which are deep underground, become invulnerable to air strikes.
‘One positive sign’
Western diplomats said one positive sign to emerge from Monday’s talks was that Tehran was willing to discuss their most pressing concern: Higher-grade uranium.
In early 2010, Iran announced it had started enriching uranium to 20% purity, a level much higher than what is needed for power generation and seen by some experts as a dangerous step towards being able to make bomb material.
The six powers want a substantive response to their offer of fuel supplies for Tehran’s research reactor and relief in sanctions on the sale of commercial aircraft parts to Iran.
Diplomats said the powers had also suggested, at a meeting in Baghdad in May, that they suspend introducing new sanctions at the United Nations level while diplomacy is taking place, but only if their demands on high-grade uranium are met.
Displaying unity after meeting on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Mexico on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama again called for Tehran to prove its nuclear program is not aimed at developing weapons.
Obama said the two leaders agreed on the need for a diplomatic solution to the standoff and that there was still time to resolve the matter through diplomatic means.