Talks between Iran and six world powers snagged over conflicting proposals about Tehran’s nuclear programme, a tug-of-war that pits international concerns about the Islamic republic’s potential to build atomic weapons against enforcing crippling sanctions on its people.
The day-long back-and-forth in Baghdad, Iraq, focused largely on whether the current enrichment level of Iran’s uranium production was a red line that the US and other powers would not permit for fear it could become warhead-grade material.
At stake is the threat that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons could pose to its neighbours. The US and Israel have indicated readiness to attack Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail to curb its nuclear programme.
Both suspect that Iran is aiming to build nuclear weapons and Israel believes it would be a prime target. Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful.
The impasse threatened to dissolve the most hopeful chance of detente in nearly a decade, although both sides agreed to continue negotiations into today.
“The international community hasn’t done something wrong here – we haven’t created a suspicious nuclear weapons programme that the world doesn’t know the answers to. Iran has,” a senior US official said, after the discussions that at times appeared on the verge of breaking down.
“They are the party who has acted to create concerns in the international community.”
But the negotiations remained in the beginning of a careful and drawn-out process. “We certainly are not at the end of it,” said the official.
Western negotiators presented a package yesterday that called on Tehran to place a freeze on its enrichment of uranium to 20%, considered a short technical step away from bomb grade.
In exchange they offered benefits, including medical isotopes, some nuclear safety co-operation and spare parts for civilian airliners, much needed in Iran.
But they snubbed Iranian calls for an immediate easing of significant economic sanctions imposed on Tehran for flouting United Nations Security Council resolutions that demand the suspension of all enrichment.
Iran brought a potent bargaining chip to the table, tentatively agreeing on the eve of the negotiations to allow UN inspectors into a military complex suspected of conducting nuclear arms-related tests.
The gesture was seen as an attempt to head off painful July 1 sanctions on its oil exports to lucrative European markets.
Diplomats from the six world powers have refused to consider postponing the new harsher sanctions, although the US official said some restrictions could be removed as part of an agreement.
The talks are seen only as a small step forward in a delicate negotiating process that probably will unfold over months. That would be likely to bring objections from Israel, which claims Iran is only trying to buy time to keep its nuclear fuel labs in full operation.
But a delay could allow US and European allies to tone down threats of military action – despite calls yesterday from a hawkish alliance of US senators who urged negotiators to take a hard line against Iran “to leave no doubt that the window for diplomacy is closing”.
The Baghdad meetings opened with the so-called five plus one group – the permanent UN Security Council members, the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, plus Germany – putting forward a proposal aimed at putting a cap on Iran’s growing stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%.
Iran says the uranium is for fuel for medical reactors, but Western diplomats say Tehran already has many times more than it needs, and that moving from 20% to bomb-grade purity is a relatively quick and easy process.
Mike Mann, spokesman for the head of the European Union delegation that is leading the talks, suggested that any rollback in sanctions was unlikely in the Baghdad round. He called the upcoming sanctions a “matter of the law and they will come into force when they come into force”.
Iran offered a counter-proposal that included “nuclear and non-nuclear issues”, according to a member of its negotiating team. The official would not discuss details of the plan but said it was to be discussed in private meetings with diplomats from the European Union and China, an Iranian ally.