Iran and six global powers on Saturday ended two days of multilateral discussions no closer to resolving a long-standing dispute over the Middle Eastern nation's contested nuclear activities, Reuters reported (see GSN, Jan. 21).
"This is not the conclusion I'd hoped for," European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said as talks closed in Istanbul, Turkey. "I am disappointed."
"We now wait to hear ... whether Iran will respond on reflection," Ashton said, adding that Tehran's next moves would affect the likelihood of further discussions taking place. The Istanbul talks followed a session at the end of 2010 in Geneva, Switzerland.
"The process can go forward if Iran chooses to respond positively," Ashton said. "The door remains open. The choice remains in Iran's hands" (Brunnstrom/Hafezi, Reuters I, Jan. 22).
The five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany unsuccessfully urged Iran to accept a nuclear fuel exchange proposal that would have involved transferring from its territory 2,800 kilograms of low-enriched uranium and 40 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched material.
"It become clear that the Iranian side was not ready for this, unless we agreed to preconditions relating to enrichment and sanctions," Ashton said (David Brunnstrom, Reuters II, Jan. 22). The Iranian delegation, led by senior nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, pressed the six powers to acknowledge the nation's right to carry out all steps of the nuclear power plant fuel production process. The enrichment process can generate civilian fuel as well as weapon material (Brunnstrom/Hafezi, Reuters I).
Under a 2009 bid put forward by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran would have exchanged 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium for material to fuel a medical isotope production reactor in Tehran. The Middle Eastern state ultimately rejected the plan worked out with France, Russia and the United States, which was aimed in part at deferring Iran's ability to produce sufficient weapon material for a bomb long enough to more fully address U.S. and European concerns about Iranian enrichment activities. Tehran has maintained its atomic ambitions are strictly peaceful and has continued uranium enrichment efforts since the trade plan was first offered.
"What we wanted to do was to leave behind in Iran roughly what had been left behind when we made the original proposal -- that is to say a level someway short of what you need to make a weapon," a high-level EU official said.
"The proposal also needed to take into account the fact that the Iranians now do enrichment to 19.75 percent ... and any deal will have to involve agreement by Iran that they would cease enriching to that level," the official said. The Middle Eastern state last February began further refining low-enriched uranium from its stockpile, ostensibly to fuel the Tehran medical reactor. The United States and other Western powers, though, have feared the process could help Iran produce nuclear-weapon material, which requires an enrichment level around 90 percent (Brunnstrom, Reuters II).
Iran's demands on eliminating sanctions and other matters, though, had "blocked everything," Agence France-Presse quoted French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie as saying (Agence France-Presse I/Korea Herald, Jan. 23).
Jalili also rejected a proposal that he meet in private with Undersecretary of State William Burns, Washington's ranking delegate to the talks, the Wall Street Journal reported.
"We told the Iranians several times that we thought it was a big mistake not to talk to the USA," one European diplomat said (Jay Solomon, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 23).
A high-level U.S. government insider characterized the negotiations as "very businesslike, but difficult," Reuters reported.
Addressing the potential for new economic penalties against Iran, the official said: "I don't want to speculate on what decisions will get made. There are certainly options there for the pressure track" (Brunnstrom/Hafezi, Reuters I).
"The Iranians are tough negotiators, and their aim was to test for splits (among the six nations) and to see if they could extract concessions on their preconditions," the Washington Post quoted a high-level U.S. official involved in the talks as saying. "They left with a pretty clear impression of the unity of this group."
"Clearly there are signs that Iran's nuclear program has slowed," the official added. "I think there is time and space for diplomacy" (Joby Warrick, Washington Post, Jan. 22).
"The Iranian nuclear issue is complicated and sensitive, and obviously cannot be comprehensively resolved through one or two rounds of dialogue," Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Wu Hailong added in a statement.
"But still, each side needs to be dedicated to talks and negotiations in a flexible and pragmatic spirit, create mutual trust and make efforts to solve the issue comprehensively and appropriately," Reuters quoted him as saying (Huang/Stanway, Reuters III, Jan. 23).
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday said his country could participate in additional talks on its atomic work, Agence France-Presse reported.
"They have talked for a few rounds, but we never expected that issues would be resolved during these few sessions because of the record and mentality of the other parties," he said. "But if the other side is determined and committed to justice, law and respect, one can hope that suitable results could be achieved in future sessions."
It was unfortunate that no progress was made in the latest meeting with Iran, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement.
"We will now intensively consult with our partners to discuss the way forward. We are still prepared for talks. I hope that Iran is ready to take the outstretched hand of the international community," he said (Hiedeh Farmani, Agence France-Presse II/Google News, Jan. 23).
A high-level U.S. diplomat, though, said "each passing day" is "one less before Iran has the means to assemble a nuclear weapon. We've held out the carrot; perhaps its time to hold out the stick."
It "might be time for the P-5+1 to say that the diplomatic process is over, and give a deadline for Iran to take their offer or leave it," analyst Bruno Tertrais of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris told the London Telegraph (Praveen Swami, London Telegraph, Jan. 23).
Meanwhile, International Atomic Energy Agency statistics indicate the performance of Iran's uranium enrichment centrifuges improved in 2010, a Federation of American Scientists analyst said in a report published on Friday.
"Despite a drop in centrifuge numbers during 2010, the total enrichment capacity of Iran's main facility has increased relative to previous years," Agence France-Presse quoted the document as saying.
"The growth in enrichment capacity from 2009 to 2010 is greater than from 2008 to 2009," the report adds. "Contrary to statements by U.S. officials and many experts, Iran clearly does not appear to be slowing down its nuclear drive. On the contrary, it has a greater enrichment capacity and seems to be more efficient at enrichment."
Some observers have said that Iran's centrifuge operation has been beset by technical challenges, seemingly including the "Stuxnet" computer worm.
"It would take Iran anywhere from five months to almost a year to produce enough HEU (highly enriched uranium) for a single crude bomb, which does not seem like a viable breakout option," the analysis states, referring to a public attempt to rapidly generate material for a bomb (Agence France-Presse III/Google News, Jan. 21).
In London, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair dismissed the contention that the 2003 invasion of Iraq had cleared the path for Iran to seek a nuclear weapons capability (see GSN, Jan. 21).
"I say this to you with all of the passion I possibly can -- at some point the West has to get out of what I think is a wretched policy or posture of apology for believing that we are causing what the Iranians are doing, or what these extremists are doing," Blair said. "We are not. The fact is they are doing it because they disagree fundamentally with our way of life and they'll carry on doing it unless they are met by the requisite determination and if necessary, force" (Agence France-Presse IV/Google News, Jan. 21).
In 2009, Washington asked that Beijing help prevent a sale to Iran of high-grade steel suitable for use in enrichment centrifuges, the Washington Times today quoted a leaked U.S. diplomatic communication as saying.
"What this shows is that China has been a consistent problem in U.S. efforts to tighten the noose around Iran's nuclear program," said Gary Milhollin, who heads the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. "Chinese companies have been a conduit for goods going to Iran" (Bill Gertz, Washington Times, Jan. 24).