The Wall Street Journal
By Laurence Norman
ALMATY, Kazakhstan–European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili open a fresh round of talks here Tuesday on Iran’s nuclear program, ending a long diplomatic skirmish that has exasperated European officials.
A few weeks after Barack Obama won re-election on Nov. 6, Baroness Ashton’s team sought to re-launch the talks they coordinate between Iran and the “P5+1”—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain, plus Germany–that ended in frustration last June in Moscow.
European officials have publicly charged that Tehran responded with delay, repeatedly pushing back over suggested dates and venues. Istanbul was rejected and Mr. Jalili’s team pushed unsuccessfully for Cairo as a location but the Egyptians weren’t keen, several officials said. At one point, Iran ditched the search for neutral soil and pitched for Tehran as a venue.
European officials were sufficiently frustrated at public Iranian comments blaming the West for the delay that a diplomat was authorized to hit back. The person said the EU, which chairs the P5+1 bloc – had repeatedly shown flexibility but Tehran had not.
“We want to present our refreshed offer but didn’t get the opportunity to do so,” the person said.
The fracas came at a critical point in one of the most explosive briefs in international diplomacy. Iran continues to step up its nuclear activities and Israeli leaders have warned about their “red lines” on Iran’s nuclear plans. The dispute also followed three rounds of top-level negotiations with Tehran in the first half of 2012 that ended in stalemate.
Western officials said at the time Iran never seriously engaged with a P5+1 proposal made to encourage Tehran to scale back its nuclear activities. Iran, which says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, said the offer lacked significant incentives.
In that context, the endless discussions over a new round of talks began to seriously fray the faith even of European officials who had been hopeful a year ago.
“The Iranians have taken dithering to an art form,” said one official familiar with the discussions. “Until the U.S. presidential election there was a certain willingness to stand back and watch the performance… But now it is time to shed the acting and get serious.”
Yet for all the frustration, Europe’s faith that talks must continue has never truly wavered, although officials have warned that a breakthrough any time soon is pretty unlikely.
“Unfortunately, much time has been lost,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement Saturday. “We want to reach the start of a substantial negotiation process about Iran’s nuclear program.”
Largely gone are comments from Baroness Ashton that there will be no talks for talking’s sake. In a recent speech in Munich, she said the EU would never cease efforts to find a diplomatic solution on Iran.
The reasons for Europe’s patience, even after a decade of talking, are several-fold.
For starters, Washington is currently a strong proponent of talks with the Obama administration seeking bilateral discussions with Tehran. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has for now rejected that call.
There’s also no doubt that Europeans buy the argument that showing a real willingness to seek a diplomatic solution strengthens Iran’s international isolation if it does not respond, Many also believe that in the past, the U.S. has also squandered opportunities for dialogue.
And European officials continue to shudder at the costs a more confrontational approach – economic and political. One senior EU Middle Eastern expert recently told us that notwithstanding regional suspicions of Shi’ite Iran, confrontation with Tehran would not only spill over into Syria, Iraq and Lebanon it could also poison the already troubled post-Arab spring transition in regional linchpins like Egypt.
But there are other reasons too. Officials say talks remain valuable in themselves – be they top-level or the bilateral contacts between the EU and Mr. Jalili’s team that have continued since last June.
Stressing the extent to which Iran has grown isolated, people familiar with the talks say they offer a crucial platform to build familiarity, allay Iranian fears and signal Western priorities, perceptions and approaches. Others say the talks have yielded real gains in terms of getting a nuanced picture of Iran’s nuclear program and intentions.
Then there are new factors which mean that keep hopes alive of an eventual breakthrough even if none seems likely before Iran’s June presidential elections.
The P5+1 is set to unveil an updated offer for Iran in Almaty which will offer new incentives to Tehran to channel its nuclear program to peaceful purposes. One Western diplomat said this would be “a serious and substantial offer” with “significant new elements in it.”
A second official said it would also include new demands on Tehran to factor in recent advances in Iran’s program.
Officials say the impact of Western sanctions could make Iran more willing to compromise. Iran’s leaders first brushed off the squeeze on their financial sector and the European ban on Iranian oil imports, but the effects have grown more visible in recent months. The Iranian currency has fallen sharply. So have government revenues.
Match that with the U.S. offer of bilateral talks and even experienced officials still believe a deal on mutual confidence-building steps could emerge later this year, opening the door for an eventual grand bargain.
“I think it’s very important we get together,” said one diplomat. “Every negotiating round is important because it also prepares the ground for what is hopefully an overall solution in the not too distant future.”
–Inti Landauro in Paris and Cassell Bryan-Low in London contributed to this article.