WASHINGTON — Officials from six world powers may offer Iran some sanctions relief during talks Tuesday in Kazakhstan if Tehran agrees to address international concerns about its controversial nuclear program.
Reports of the sanctions relief come from European and American sources before the meeting in Almaty between Iranian nuclear officials and the so-called P5+1 group of nations - the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.
For years, the international community has been trying to persuade Iran to curb its uranium enrichment activities. The United States and the European Union believe Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful, civilian purposes.
Low-enriched uranium can be used for civilian nuclear power plants, but highly-enriched uranium is an integral part of a nuclear bomb.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a private research firm, said that since the last round of talks in June of last year, Iran has continued to make gradual but steady progress with its uranium enrichment program.
“It has installed additional centrifuges in its Fordow nuclear complex, the underground fortified complex,” Kimball said. “That facility is now at capacity with nearly 3,000 centrifuges, though only about less than one-third of those are actually spinning.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency said recently that Iran has begun to install a new generation of centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment plant and the agency said Tehran continues to enrich uranium at 20 percent.
Experts say weapons-grade uranium has to be enriched to a 90 percent concentrated level to be used as the explosive material in a nuclear bomb.
Many experts, including Joel Rubin with the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, say Iran is still a ways off in its presumed quest to produce nuclear weapons.
“The concern, however, is that Iran is putting in the building blocks to have the capability to make a dash for the bomb,” Rubin said, “that it is installing advanced centrifuges and perfecting the enrichment process to the point where if it were to decide, then it would have a shorter window for breakout. But we are not at that point yet.”
In an effort to pressure Iran to end its uranium enrichment program, over the past few years, the United Nations Security Council has passed resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran. In addition, several other nations, including the United States, have imposed their own measures.
The Associated Press and Reuters report that sources in the EU and the U.S. say there could be an easing of sanctions if Iran is ready to bargain.
"The window for a diplomatic solution simply cannot by definition remain open forever. But it is open today. It is open now," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a news conference in London. "There is still time but there is only time if Iran makes the decision to come to the table and negotiate in good faith."
Analyst Rubin and others said sanctions have hit the Iranian economy hard.
“What these sanctions have done is beyond the penalties that they have inflicted, they have also rallied international unity on the question of Iran’s nuclear program,” said Rubin. “China and Russia are very much invested in these sanctions as well as the European Union, in addition to the United States.”
Experts said the question is what steps will Iran be willing to take - such as curtailing uranium enrichment - in exchange for easing sanctions?
Bruce Laingen was the senior American diplomat in Tehran when he and 51 other Americans were taken hostage by Iranians in 1979 and held for 444 days. He said the Almaty meeting is important simply because it is taking place.
“Diplomacy is always the way to go," he said. "I’m a diplomat. I’ve lived with this issue for a long time. It’s an available tool which is always there - diplomacy is talk, talking between the principals involved.”
“But nothing will come of it until the principals involved get some degree of encouragement from the leadership in both countries," he added "You can’t have a diplomatic process unless there is some degree of moderation, compromise, on the part of both sides.”
Many analysts don’t expect much progress to be achieved at the Almaty talks since Iran is scheduled to have presidential elections in June. Experts said that makes it hard for Iranian officials to make any concessions at these talks.