The latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the six countries representing the United Nations ended over the weekend with no substantive progress or plan for more meetings. But both sides promised to be in touch after taking some time to evaluate each other’s ideas. The process is suspended but has not reached a dangerous impasse.
The delegates gathered in Kazakhstan amid hopes they would build on the upbeat atmosphere of the last round of talks there in February. Some believed there was a chance of agreement on first steps toward ending the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.
But as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton noted, it didn’t turn out that way. She said, “It became clear the positions of the E3 + 3 and Iran remain far apart on the substance.”
Other participants agreed, but did their best to put a positive spin on the situation. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, “From the point of view of our work, of this process, of the atmosphere of the talks, we have progressed far ahead.”
Iran's chief negotiatior Saeed Jalili said, “Representatives tabled the points of view of their respective countries and announced that they will need to make further assessments.”
The five permanent Security Council members and Germany want an end to Iranian uranium enrichment to near weapons grade - and full U.N. inspections to prove it. The Iranians want recognition of their right to enrich uranium, even to weapons grade, and an end to international sanctions.
To some extent, both sides are playing for time until after the Iranian election in June.
But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said there is a limit, “This is not an interminable process. So we hope that out of Almaty will come a narrowing of some of the differences. Diplomacy is a painful task and a task for the patient.”
There is concern that if there is no significant progress in the talks, and soon, the United States or Israel could take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. And even with two rounds of talks already this year, there is no guarantee of significant progress - according to the nuclear expert at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mark Firtzpatrick.
“I don’t think 2013 will produce a solution to the Iran nuclear program," said Firtzpatrick. "If it can produce at least a partial agreement, that would be a favorable and welcome development. 2013 could also be a very negative year if Iran does not accept any limits to its program, if it keeps expanding.”
The next indication of which way 2013 will go should come within a few weeks -- when officials consult at long-distance about whether and when to meet again. Until then, Iranian enrichment goes on, the crippling economic sanctions continue,and the two sides remain far apart.