How hopes of a deal with Iran ended in meltdown

Iran's team dismissed the conditions as an infringement of its sovereignty

No one involved in the latest round of talks between Tehran and six world power wanted to be too alarmist in public out of fear that may open the door to military action in an already incendiary region, but the hopes of a diplomatic settlement over Iran’s nuclear programme have been severely damaged by the failure of the negotiations in Moscow.

The road to the conference in Russia had been paved by two high level meetings in Istanbul and Baghdad, but instead of progress of substance being made, it ended in acrimony, mistrust and the downgrading of further contacts.

At the end of three days of gruelling sessions, the European Union’s head of foreign policy, Baroness Ashton, stated: “ It remains clear that there are significant gaps between the substance of the two positions”. It was up to Iran, she added, on whether it wants “to address of the international community”.

EU and US sanctions targeting Iran’s oil export sector come into force on 1 July and 28 June  respectively, amid warnings that further punitive measures may follow. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said sanctions should “continue to be tightened as long as Iran refuses to negotiate seriously.” A senior Western diplomatic source said: “We’ll be looking at our partners in this and also countries in places like the Gulf to see how this can be effectively implemented.”

There is, however, an anxiety to play down the scale of the  breakdown because, it is felt, that would encourage hawks in Israel to further press for  strikes to destroy Tehran’s capacity to acquire the Bomb. A persistent theory is that any air attack must take place before the US elections in a period when Barack Obama would find it difficult not to give full backing.

Senior American and British diplomatic and military sources maintained, however, that there is an understanding between the Obama administration and Binyamin Netanyahu’s government that there will be no pre-emptory action before November.

The group of six powers, Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany, want Iran to “stop, shut and ship” – end enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, transfer stockpiles out of the country under international supervision and shut the underground facility where much of it is produced. In return, Tehran would get fuel plates for a nuclear reactor focusing on medical research, an easing of the current economic sanctions and spare parts for commercial airliners.

Iran’s team, led by chief negotiator Saeed Jalili, dismissed the conditions as an infringement of its sovereignty and demanded instead international recognition that it has the right to enrich uranium for what it claims are peaceful purposes and relief from sanctions. In exchange, it offered temporary suspension of the production of 20 per cent enrichment and co-operation with UN inspectors over past weapons programmes.

Mr Jalili reiterated Iran’s basic position that its enrichment of uranium is non-negotiable, and that “there is no reason or excuse to have doubt regarding the peaceful aims of Iran’s nuclear programme.”

Russian officials met the Iranian team on several occasions, but failed to soften their stance. “There is certainly a danger that the talks will collapse,” said Alireza Nader, an Iran specialist at the RAND Corporation in Washington. “At some point Iran may conclude that the talks are fruitless and that it won’t get what it wants. The sequencing [of possible consequences] appears to be a big problem here. I wouldn’t say the talks are pointless. But I also fear the negotiations are on shaky ground.”

Technical experts on both sides will meet in Istanbul on 3 July to “increase the understanding of the Iranian position” and attempt to find common ground. “It may not seem much from the outside, but this leave the door open” said Robert Emerson, a security analyst. “The last thing they want is to give a pretext for an Israeli attack and the destabilization that will cause”.

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