EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton (left) and Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Said Jalili, on the sidelines of the Almaty talks on February 26, 2013. (AFP)
A second round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 – the five nuclear-armed permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and Germany – over Iran’s nuclear program began today, Friday April 5, 2013, in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Iranian officials have remained hopeful that the talks will prove fruitful, building upon the relatively productive previous meetings. ”Almaty I meeting bore positive results, and we also hope that in Almaty II this forward movement continues,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi recently told the press. While “this issue will not be solved overnight,” Salehi added, “the process of solving this issue has begun.”
Just two days before the meeting, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast echoed these sentiments, saying, “The upcoming talks are likely to be conducted in a reasonable atmosphere which would help both sides reach a final solution.” Still, Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian notes that, with Iran’s June election looming, chances are “[a]ny nuclear deal would be unlikely until after Iran has chosen its next president.”
Meanwhile, Western officials have tempered their own optimism over making progress with a heavy dose of skepticism and low expectations. “There has been a very positive line out of Tehran on the talks so far,” an unnamed U.S. official told Scott Peterson of The Christian Science Monitor. “We hope that that positive talk will now be matched with some concrete responses and actions on the Iranian side. The onus is really on Iran to respond to the proposal and tell us where they stand.”
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief and the P5+1′s top negotiator, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about what she “hope[s] will be a successful meeting in Almaty.” She added, “I really do hope that Iran will now…consider the proposal we put on the table [in February] and respond to it.” Her spokesman later called upon Iran “to give a clear and concrete answer” to the recent offer.
Though the Iranian negotiating team on Thursday released a statement declaring that “the Islamic Republic will enter the new round of talks with the P5+1 group of world powers with clear, groundbreaking proposals,” the head of the delegation, Said Jalili, made clear how progress could be made. Speaking at a university in Almaty before the talks, Jalili explained, “We think our talks tomorrow can go forward with one word. That is the acceptance of the rights of Iran, particularly the right to enrichment.”
This position was similarly articulated by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during his annual Nowruz speech in the Iranian city of Mashhad. ”If the Americans wanted to resolve the issue, this would be a very simple solution: they could recognize the Iranian nation’s right to enrichment and in order to address those concerns, they could enforce the regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” Khamenei said. “We were never opposed to the supervision and regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
For now, however, the potential for Western acknowledgement of Iran’s inalienable national rights remains slim, while threats and demands continue to control American discoure. If Iran “does not take concrete steps to address the concerns of the international community,” the anonymous U.S. official told Peterson, then sanctions “pressure only will increase.”
Despite these warnings, “the international community” does not appear to have any interest in supporting any more American-led sanctions on Iran. Last summer, the 120 nations represented in the Non-Aligned Movement unanimously backed Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy and the domestic mastery of the fuel cycle, including an enrichment program. Just last week, the world’s five fast-growing economies, known as the BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – concluded their fifth annual conference and issued a declaration expressing concern over unilateral sanctions, opposing military action and recognizing “Iran’s right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy consistent with its international obligations.”
On Wednesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov stressed that “unconditional recognition” of Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear energy program is the only solution to the current standoff, adding that any long-term solution must be based on the recognition of Iran’s “unconditional right to develop its civilian nuclear program.”
Both Russia and China have previously opposed imposing unilateral sanctions upon Iran and its trading partners.
Furthermore, as veteran journalist Jim Lobe recently reported, even the P5+1 itself “is showing signs of growing disunity, according to the European Union’s former top foreign policy official,” Javier Solana. “I think that the level of consistency and coherence of the P5 (+1) is diminishing,” he said during remarks at Washington’s Brooking Institute this week, adding that “emerging powers” are “unhappy with Western pressure to curb imports of Iranian oil and gas, especially in light of the latest estimates of a possible spike in energy prices next year if Iranian supplies are kept off the market.”
Unsurprisingly, the Israeli Prime Minister has also chimed in. In a statement released Wednesday, Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of “talking, but at the same time developing nuclear weapons; threatening and at the same time developing nuclear weapons and threatening the use of nuclear weapons, we cannot allow this to happen in Iran,” despite the fact that Iran is neither developing nuclear weapons nor has it ever threatened to use the nuclear weapons that it’s not developing.
With all of these factors in play, any progress this weekend may very well prove elusive. But what happens in Almaty will surely set the stage for what comes next: either more of the same bellicose threats from Israel and the United States or the beginning of the end of three decades of hostility and propaganda. The latter possibility, however remote, is reason enough to hope for the best.
UPDATE: Early feedback from Almaty indicates that, according to Western diplomats involved in the negotiations, “little progress” has been made on the first day of talks. “There has not yet been a clear and concrete response” from Iran to the most recent P5+1 proposal put forward in February, an unnamed Western official told the press Friday.
The Iranian delegation is said to have opened the talks by presenting “specific plans and proposals for starting a new round of co-operation,” but the P5+1 was reportedly “somewhat puzzled” by the suggestions. ”There were some interesting but not fully explained general comments on our ideas,” the diplomat said. “It was mainly a reworking of what they said in Moscow,” during a previous round of talks last June.
Al Monitor's Laura Rozen, who is in Almaty covering the talks, reported that “Western diplomats expressed barely contained exasperation at Iran’s apparent sharp retreat to debating modalities for negotiations, rather than specific steps discussed at two recent rounds of talks this Spring.”
Other news outlets have been similarly negative. Reuters describes the two sides as "miles apart," while The Wall Street Journal said the talks were "off to [a] shaky start."
Meanwhile, Iran's deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Baqeri told the press that "Iran believes that what is referred to as a confidence-building step or the measures both sides should agree upon and undertake is part of the comprehensive solution," but didn't elaborate on what those measures might entail.
The talks will continue Saturday.
Originally posted at Muftah.