David Blair – Telegraph.co.uk Feb 27, 2013
The negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany ended with rare words of guarded optimism from both sides.
“In this round of talks we have witnessed that, despite all the attitudes during the last eight months, they tried to get closer to our viewpoints,” said Saeed Jalili, the lead Iranian negotiator.
Praising the “positive” approach of his interlocutors, he said: “We believe this is a turning point.”
The six, the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany, known as the “P5 plus 1, had made three crucial demands on Iran before any sanctions could be relaxed.
These were that Iran should stop enriching uranium to the 20 per cent purity that is close to weapons grade; ship its stockpile of this material out of the country, and shut the nuclear plant at Fordow, which was built in secret and revealed only in 2009.
Yesterday the US and the other countries diluted two of the three stipulations. They still insisted that Iran must stop enriching to 20 per cent, but they have relaxed their demands for the outright closure of Fordow and the export of Tehran’s medium-enriched uranium.
Instead, a Western diplomat said that Iran was asked to “reduce the readiness” of Fordow. This would mean “standing down” some of the cascades of centrifuges. Iran would also be able to keep enough 20 per cent uranium to fuel a civilian research reactor in Tehran.
The diplomat stressed that these would be interim “confidence-building measures”, designed to ease the path to a final settlement. But if Iran agreed, the US and her allies would lift sanctions on the trade of gold and precious metals and on equipment for the Islamic Republic’s petrochemical industry.
All other sanctions would remain, but the world powers would refrain from imposing any additional restrictions over the nuclear issue.
“They’re watering down the ‘stop, ship and shut’ commitments in order to have a pause, a breather,” said Hugh Chalmers, a nuclear analyst at the Royal United Services Institute. “This seems like a very pragmatic approach towards buying time.”
Baroness Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, who chairs the “P5 plus 1″, said Iran had an opportunity to “take some initial steps that would improve the confidence of the international community in the wholly peaceful nature of their nuclear programme”.
Speaking after the talks in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, Lady Ashton cautioned: “The real optimism will come when we start to see progress really being made. And that means our aspiration to see Iran move forward to pick up this proposal, to agree to it and to undertake to implement their part of it.”
Mr Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, listened “intently” as the proposal was set out, said one diplomat at the talks. But Iran has yet to give a formal response.
Officials will meet next month to pin down the details, preparing for another round of negotiations in April. Mr Chalmers said the “P5 plus 1″ had left much undefined.
“Once they’ve reduced the readiness at Fordow, they’ll be looking to get far more intrusive IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspections. But ‘reduced readiness’ is an uncertain term. How many centrifuges would Iran be allowed to continue operating inside Fordow? And where do they draw the line as to how much 20 per cent enriched uranium Iran would be able to keep?”
Iran has taken conciliatory steps of its own, making it easier for the six countries to modify their demands. Tehran has converted 40 per cent of its medium-enriched uranium into harmless fuel rods, while only a quarter of the 2,710 centrifuges inside Fordow are operational – the same number as a year ago.
But Israel fears that America and its allies will give too much away. Yesterday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said that only a threat of “military sanctions” would make Iran back down. “I don’t think there are any other means that will make Iran heed the international community’s demands,” he said.