By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan
Iran is preparing a counteroffer to a proposal by the U.S. and its partners to ease some banking, petrochemical and gold sanctions if the nation curbs its atomic activities, according to two officials close to negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s disputed nuclear program.
At the talks today in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Iran was offered limited sanctions relief if it ceases its output of 20 percent enriched uranium. Iran is considering the offer and intends to present its own ideas tomorrow, according to the officials.
“The onus lies with Iran” to agree to confidence-building measures, European Union spokesman Michael Mann told reporters following the first day of talks.
“We hope very much that the Iranian side will come back to show flexibility and a positive attitude toward our proposal, but the ball is in their court,” said Mann, spokesman for Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief.
After a hiatus in talks that stalled last June, Iran resumed negotiations with six world powers -- the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia. The group is seeking an eventual long-term agreement that will lead to the lifting of sanctions imposed on the Persian Gulf state if it abandons illicit nuclear activities.
Iran’s counteroffer will be based on its proposal at the last round of talks in Moscow, though Iran has come to Almaty with a range of additional ideas that might respond to the international community’s concerns, the officials close to the negotiations said.
Which version Iran presents tomorrow will depend on consultations tonight and consideration of the proposal presented by the six nations today, the officials said.
“We have come here with a revised offer and we have come to engage with Iran in a meaningful way,” Ashton, who serves as lead negotiator for the six partners, said before the start of talks today. The six powers want to see a “good and detailed conversation, with the ambition that we see progress by the end of the meeting.”
After the session, Mann called the initial exchanges “useful” and said the talks will resume at 11 a.m. local time tomorrow.
Iranian negotiators held bilateral talks with the British, Germans, and Russians, after having met previously with the Chinese, according to a diplomat who asked not to be identified discussing private consultations.
The stakes are high for reaching a negotiated settlement.
Both the U.S. and Israel have said that military action is possible to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that Iran is approaching what his nation regards as its “red line.” Iran hasn’t yet reached the point where it has sufficient 20 percent enriched uranium that, if further enriched to 90 percent, would be enough to make a nuclear weapon.
The UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said it doesn’t have evidence that Iran has diverted any enriched uranium for possible bomb use. Still, the IAEA repeated in a Feb. 21 report that it has unresolved questions about suspected military-related activities that make it unable to conclude Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.
Iranian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment publicly, said Iran will reject any final deal that doesn’t recognize what they state is their nation’s right under international treaty to enrich uranium for peaceful civilian use.
Iran says its uranium-enrichment and other nuclear activities are for civil energy production and medical research. Israel, the U.S. and European powers say Iran is clandestinely seeking the technology to produce a nuclear weapon.
Israel’s former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman today accused Iran of using the talks to gain extra time.
“It is clear that Iran intends to drag this process out while they gallop toward nuclear capability,” Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu party and the temporary head of the parliamentary foreign affairs and defense committee, said in comments broadcast on Army Radio. “The time has come to move on to steps that are much more significant than the negotiations and sanctions taken until now. We are not deluded.”
The message to Iran before today’s talks is that there’s a path forward to lift sanctions that have reduced the Persian Gulf nation’s average monthly oil exports by half since last July and sent its currency plunging, according to U.S. officials who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
In London, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that a “window for a diplomatic solution is open.” At a news conference, Kerry and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed determination to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons.
Iran was tied with the United Arab Emirates last month as the No. 5 producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Oil fell to a seven-week low in New York amid estimates that U.S. crude inventories rose and as an Italian political stalemate spurred concern that Europe’s debt crisis may worsen. West Texas Intermediate oil for April delivery fell 66 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $92.45 a barrel at 12:20 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange after declining to $91.92, the lowest level on an intraday basis since Jan. 4. Prices have decreased 16 percent in the past year.
To start earning relief from sanctions, the officials involved in the talks said, Iran must be prepared to abandon its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, which puts it closer to producing bomb-grade fuel if it chooses to do so.
The six powers won’t consider a full lifting of sanctions as proposed by the Iranian side, and instead would like to see step-by-step equivalent actions taken by both sides, U.S. and Western diplomats said. If Iran refuses to take the first step toward an eventual deal, more sanctions will be imposed, officials said.
Vice President Joe Biden reiterated recently that the U.S. is willing to talk directly with Iran about both sides’ concerns. The last time that happened was in October 2009 in a Geneva round of negotiations, and officials said it is unlikely that such talks will take place tomorrow.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly appeared to brush off the offer, saying Iran wouldn’t negotiate with a gun to its head, a reference to dozens of sanctions on Iranian oil, banking, shipping and trade imposed by the U.S. and the EU since late 2011.
The perennial challenge in dealing with Tehran “is that the Iranian officials who want to talk to America can’t deliver, and those who can deliver don’t want to talk,” Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said in an interview.