Impasse in Almaty

David Patrikarakos

The latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members and Germany) held on Friday and Saturday in Almaty promised much. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, had described the previous meeting (in February) as a ‘turning point’ and the foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, had said negotiations were ‘on the right track and moving in the right direction’. Western diplomats, too, had expressed quiet confidence.

Which was perhaps foolish. We have been here many, many times during the eleven years that this saga has rumbled on, and, sure enough, the latest round of talks broke down with each side blaming the other for the lack of progress. No common ground was reached; there wasn’t even an agreement to meet again for more talks.

There were some positives, not least the half-hour exchange between Jalili and Wendy Sherman, the US under secretary of state for political affairs. Considering the two countries would not even speak to each other for over thirty years, this is encouraging. Only the US can offer Iran enough (financial inducements, security guarantees, a normalisation of relations) to make it compromise. If the impasse is ever to end, the two have to talk.

For now, the impasse continues. The P5+1 want more or less the same thing they have wanted for years: for Iran to give up enriching uranium to 20 per cent U235 – which is weapons useable – and to cease work at its Fordow Enrichment Facility, in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions.

Iran, conversely, continues to look for a deal that will guarantee its ‘inalienable right’ to enrich uranium for ‘peaceful purposes’ and an end to sanctions, which are seriously hurting the country. Iranian negotiators arrived in Almaty calling for assurances of their right to enrich and the lifting of sanctions before they would even consider short-term confidence-building measures focused on limiting 20 per cent enrichment. Their Western counterparts declared themselves disappointed at the ‘minimal’ Iranian presentation.

The P5+1 have dropped demands that Iran shut down its Fordo enrichment facility, merely asking it to suspend work at the plant, and now agree to allow Iran to keep enough 20 per cent fuel for its domestic medical needs. There is some sanctions relief on the table too: allowing Iran to trade in gold and precious metals (which should help circumvent the banking sanctions that have isolated it from the international financial system) and easing an import embargo on Iranian petrochemical products, from which the country derives most of its foreign exchange earnings.

But it was not enough. ‘Over two days of talks we had long and intensive discussions on the issues,’ said Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief. ‘It became clear that our positions remained far apart.’

The saga will continue nonetheless. ‘There may not have been a breakthrough, but there was also not a breakdown,’ a US official said. The two sides have agreed to go back to their capitals to evaluate their positions and Ashton announced that she will call Jalili soon to ‘see how to go forward’. More than a decade into the crisis this is still the question everyone is asking.