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NUKEWARS
Next Iran talks: stalemate on the steppes?
by Staff Writers
Vienna (AFP) Feb 06, 2013


Russia expects 'serious progress' on Iran nuclear crisis
Moscow (AFP) Feb 06, 2013 - Russia put pressure on Iran Wednesday by noting that it expected to see "serious progress" made at this month's talks in Kazakhstan over Tehran's disputed nuclear programme.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said world powers and the Islamic republic had made no progress since the last round of top-level negotiations were held in Moscow at the end of June 2012.

But he stressed that pressure will be high on sides to climb down from their respective positions and seek middle ground at the February 26 meeting in Almaty.

"Despite everything, I would very much hope to see the upcoming round result in -- if not an outright breakthrough -- then serious progress," Ryabkov said in a wide-ranging interview with the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

"Because so far, we have not advanced past the stage at which we found ourselves in June" in Moscow.

"We have lost a lot of time," Russia's top nuclear negotiator said.

"We do not think you can lose time anymore."

Talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 powers -- the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany -- have been held on three occasions at the highest level in the past year.

None of the meetings has drawn a promise from Tehran to scale back its contested nuclear enrichment programme to levels that world powers believe cannot be used to make atomic weapons.

Iran denies the programme has a military component and insists on global recognition of its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

World powers counter that Iran sacrificed its enrichment rights by refusing cooperation with international nuclear inspectors.

The dispute has resulted in four rounds of global sanctions against Tehran -- in addition to unilateral US and EU measures -- that have crippled the Iranian economy and hit its oil exports.

Ryabkov agreed that the meeting in Almaty would mostly show "whether there was a political will or not."

Ryabkov said the timing -- in the wake of the US presidential election season and ahead of Iranian polls -- meant that this might the last chance the two sides had to agree diplomatically for some time.

"The calendar itself is pressing us to work with greater intensity," Ryabkov said.

The new talks were confirmed this week after months of delays and complaints by the office of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton -- the leading negotiator for the powers -- of Iran presenting a series of new preconditions for the talks to begin.

Some politicians and experts see the Almaty meeting as primarily a trust-building excercise that had only the most limited chances of reaching an actual deal.

The Moscow negotiations broke down over Iran's demand on the West to lift sanctions before it makes any compromise on enrichment levels.

The big nations offered an easing of sanctions as a reward for Iran's cooperation on enrichment instead.

Analysts do not believe that either side is currently willing to make the first move -- a view indirectly confirmed on Wednesday by Tehran's Moscow ambassador Mahmoud Reza Sajjadi.

"We made five proposals at the Moscow talks. Now we are waiting for their response," the Iranian ambassador said, quoted by Russian news agencies.

"Our main request at the upcoming talks is that there are no double standards about the Iranian nuclear programme," Sajjadi said.

The Kazakh meeting will also present Iranian and US negotiators to discuss Washington's latest proposal for direct negotiations with Tehran.

Iran has previously rejected such offers and has been non-committal about the latest direct discussions proposal voiced by US Vice President Joe Biden in Munich last weekend.

Agreeing a venue for the next round of talks between Iran and six world powers on Tehran's nuclear drive was hard enough. Achieving progress will be tougher still, analysts say.

Following weeks of wrangling, Iran and the P5+1 -- the US, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany -- finally confirmed on Tuesday that they would meet in Almaty, Kazakhstan on February 26.

It will be the first such meeting since last June in Moscow, and the first since US President Barack Obama's re-election in November, a victory seen by many as freeing Washington's hands to strike a deal.

Watching closely will be Israel, the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear-armed state, which has warned it could bomb Iran, although the immediate threat appears to have receded in recent months, experts say.

"The Iranian danger has grown," President Shimon Peres said Tuesday. "It threatens our existence, the independence of the Arab states, the peace of the whole world."

Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful but many in the international community suspect that Tehran's real aim is to develop the atomic bomb.

The UN Security Council has imposed four sets of sanctions on Tehran, and further unilateral sanctions by the United States, the European Union and others began to cause Iran major economic problems in 2012.

"The sanctions are biting," Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, a Middle East and Iran lecturer at Manchester University in England, told AFP. "The currency has plunged badly and... the price of absolutely everything has skyrocketed."

In May in Baghdad, the P5+1 demanded Iran scale back uranium enrichment to purities of 20 percent, which for the international community is the most worrisome part of Tehran's activities.

But because the P5+1 stopped short of offering relief from the sanctions, Iran walked away at the next round of talks in Russia. The lengthy US election campaign then put all further efforts on hold.

-- 'Updated' offer --

-------------------

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Tuesday that the world powers would make an "updated and credible" offer and that the "need to make progress is increasingly urgent".

Russia's chief negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, was quoted Wednesday by RIA Novosti as saying he hoped to see at the talks "if not an outright breakthrough -- then serious progress".

"The key question is whether Iran will come in a real transactional mode, in other words really be ready to negotiate. They haven't been so far," said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department official now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"I think the P5+1 are ready to haggle and negotiate. So far I haven't seen signs that Iran is," he told AFP.

The run-up to Tuesday's announcement of new talks did not bode well, with P5+1 chief negotiator Catherine Ashton's office complaining that Iran had "come back to us again and again with new pre-conditions".

Comments from Mahdi Mohammadi, a member of Iran's negotiating team, indicated recently that the positions of the two sides remain poles apart.

First, the United States had to accept Iran's "right to enrich", then the US and EU have to remove all unilateral sanctions, Mohammadi said.

Only then, he said, would Iran be "ready to negotiate about 20-percent enrichment provided that the United Nations Security Council will annul all its sanctions resolutions against Tehran".

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi appeared to strike a more conciliatory note in an interview in Germany's Handelsblatt published Wednesday, saying Tehran "takes the concerns of the other side seriously".

"But at the same time our right to civilian uses of nuclear power... must be recognised," he said, while calling for an end to "war rhetoric that all options are on the table and threats of more sanctions."

For Mark Hibbs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, success in Almaty and beyond is about building trust and "sequencing" -- the order in which both sides agree to take steps.

"If you lift sanctions too early in the process and your negotiations fall apart, it may be very very difficult for you to impose those sanctions after they have lifted them," Hibbs told AFP.

"And that is particularly the case for the unilateral (EU and US) sanctions."

And it is not just Iran and the P5+1 that have to agree on the right order, the six powers also have to speak as one -- something which going forward is not necessarily a given, Hibbs said.

"There could be differences of opinion," he said.

.


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