World powers began two days of talks with Iran on Monday in Moscow to try to end a decade-long stand-off over Tehran’s nuclear program and avert the threat of a new war in the Middle East.
The negotiations are seen as a last chance to solve the crisis diplomatically, while analysts and diplomats say that a breakthrough is unlikely, with Iran expected to demand recognition of its right to enrich uranium for what it says is a purely peaceful nuclear program.
Chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili sat down with representatives from six world powers including the United States for the talks.
With an initial show of protocol smiles and polite cordiality, Jalili and the Iranian negotiating team sat at one side of the table opposite the envoys of the six world powers and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Failure in the talks could carry a heavy cost with the United States and its ally Israel refusing to rule out the option of airstrikes against the Iranian nuclear program and Tehran facing sanctions that could cripple the economy.
But Iran made clear ahead of the negotiations it has no intention of abandoning its right to enrich uranium, the process which can be used to make nuclear fuel but also the explosive core of an atomic bomb.
“If this demand isn’t recognized, the negotiations are certainly headed for failure,” an unidentified Iranian official at the talks said, according to state news agency IRNA.
Diplomatic sources have said Iran would be offered a compromise plan under which it would scale down the degree to which uranium is enriched at its main enrichment facility in Natanz from 20 percent to 3.5 or 5 percent.
The proposal would also require Iran to freeze all enrichment at its underground Fordo facility deep in the mountains outside the holy city of Qom or even close the plant altogether.
Diamonds for peanuts?
A former Iranian negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, likened the powers’ proposal to swapping “diamonds for peanuts,” telling Reuters that the Moscow talks would probably fail without substantial concessions by the six powers.
Iran is also seeking an end to increasingly tough economic sanctions which have in recent months directly targeted its ability to export oil, its economic lifeblood.
But international concern is growing. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) failed to persuade Iran, in talks this month, to let it inspect the Parchin military site where it suspects nuclear bomb-related research took place.
Last week, after acrimonious letters and phone calls between EU and Iranian diplomats, EU officials said Jalili had agreed to give serious consideration to the six powers’ proposal.
Russia’s determination to avoid diplomatic defeat may increase hopes of agreement to at least meet again. Moscow opposes new sanctions and military intervention in Iran and Syria, and wants a big role in finding a peaceful solution.
But U.S. and European diplomats have given no public indication of any willingness to scale back economic sanctions for now. An EU embargo on Iranian oil takes full effect on July 1 and new U.S. financial sanctions some days before that.
“Sanctions will enter into force in July unless something very dramatic happens,” said a Western diplomat.
Measures including the EU ban on Iranian crude, are already taking a toll. Iran’s exports have fallen by some 40 percent since this year, according to the International Energy Agency. Iran says it has no problem replacing customers that choose to boycott its crude.