MOSCOW — A new round of talks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions began in Moscow on Monday, with a significant gap looming between the two sides’ positions as painful new sanctions are set to come into effect to further isolate Tehran from world oil and banking markets.
The Moscow talks continued incremental negotiations that began years ago, but which were recently renewed in Istanbul and Baghdad, bringing together Iranian negotiators with major powers including the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — as well as Germany and the European Union.
Iran is in violation of Security Council resolutions demanding that it suspend enrichment and has failed to ease concerns that its nuclear program is aimed at building a bomb, a charge Iran denies.
The major powers are expected to renew demands that Iran suspend the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, ship out its stockpile of this uranium, and cease operations at Fordo, an enrichment facility buried in a mountain near Qum that alarms Israel, the United States and the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf because it could soon be immune to an airstrike.
The proposal floated in Baghdad offered Iran spare parts for older American-built civilian aircraft and safety upgrades for an Iranian nuclear reactor if it suspended the enrichment program, with the promise of more sanctions relief in return for specific Iranian actions to come into compliance over time.
Tehran is seeking more substantial concessions, such as complete sanctions relief and recognition of its right to enrich uranium. Iran argues that new sanctions on oil exports and bank transactions, which are to go into effect by July 1, contradict efforts to negotiate. The West believes that only the threat of new sanctions has brought Iran to the table.
A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the major powers are “poised to take reciprocal steps in exchange for verifiable Iranian actions.” However, with President Obama heading into a presidential election under a barrage of criticism from Republicans, it is unlikely that Washington would agree to such dramatic steps, leaving little hope for a major breakthrough.
Following the meeting in Baghdad last month, “the common ground was fairly narrow,” the official said. “We thought there was just enough to merit another round,” referring to the talks in Moscow.
“We all have to remember what we are doing here,” the official said. “The international community’s concern is to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That is what it is fundamentally about.”
In Baghdad, the Iranian side was evidently disappointed by the reciprocal steps proposed by the six major powers, with state television deriding the package as “unbalanced.” A spokesman for the European Union negotiating team said on Monday he hoped Iranian negotiators would “seriously engage” on the proposals previously offered by the major powers.
“In terms of any adjustments, no, what is on the table is what was put on the table in Baghdad,” said Michael Mann, spokesman for the European Union’s top foreign policy official, Catherine Ashton. “It’s in black and white on paper, and it’s there for all to see, so we’re hoping they can take it point by point.”
The conference serves as a test of the Kremlin’s clout as an international broker, amid searing international criticism of its position on Syria. Both analysts and officials, however, have downplayed expectations for a breakthrough.
“We must understand that for President Barack Obama, neither a final positive or negative solution is possible, because he will face criticism for either one,” said Vladimir Sazhin, a top Iran expert with the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Oriental Studies. “With Iran, the situation coincides completely with the situation in the United States. Iran doesn’t need one decision or the other.”In an interview published at the weekend in a German newspaper, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran said his country was prepared to voluntarily offer a “positive step.” But the transcript of the interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung did not give the same specific details of the offer. News report from Tehran quoted Mr. Ahmadinejad as saying Tehran was prepared to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent purity if the powers guaranteed supplies of the same kind of fuel.
“If we had been given uranium enriched to 20 percent, we would not have produced it ourselves,” he said, according to the transcript in German. “It was much more expensive for us. But we had no choice because every year 800,000 cancer sufferers need treatment.” Western leaders say Iran is seeking the capability to build a nuclear weapon.