Iran and world powers on Tuesday return from a stormy session for what could be the last day of negotiations aimed at putting a peaceful halt to the Islamic Republic’s disputed nuclear drive following “intense and tough” talks on Monday.
But although negotiations between Iran and six world powers concerned about its nuclear program were intense, there was no clear progress towards ending a decade-long dispute which risks sparking a new Middle East war.
A spokesman for the head of the delegation talking to Iran held out hope for a result on the second, final day of talks.
“We had an intense and tough exchange of views,” said European Union foreign policy head Catherine Ashton's spokesman Michael Mann. “We agreed to reflect overnight on each others' positions.”
Western officials said their patience was running out with Iran as its enrichment capabilities developed and the danger of it starting to produce material that could be made into nuclear weapons grew.
“If there are signs of progress that they want to move things forward, then we would do that,” an EU official said in reference to a possible fourth round of negotiations at a future date.
But “we have to wait and see whether they come back with a positive attitude toward our proposals,” the EU official added. “It is not in our interests to stall.”
The West is waiting for Iran to respond to an offer made last month and repeated on Monday that would see it halt enrichment to the dangerous level of 20 percent and ship out such existing material in return for some forms of aid.
Iran has countered with a demand that world powers recognize its “right to enrich” – something contradicting current UN resolutions – and rescind an oil embargo that the European Union intends to implement fully on July 1.
Tehran has most importantly rejected the idea of scaling back what it claims is a peaceful program before it wins any concession – a point on which the world powers remain firm.
Western officials indicated that they were waiting for Iran to either tone down or somehow rephrase those demands because they remained deal breakers.
“The July 1 (oil embargo) deadline is law,” the EU official said.
Negotiators from both host nation Russia – an Iranian partner that opposes sanctions – and the Islamic Republic suggested that the biggest problem lay in finding a way to deal with what now are mutually exclusive demands.
“How to bring these positions together is possibly the main difficulty,” said Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
A member of the Iranian delegation also gave a downbeat assessment after his side made a power point presentation to teams from the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany at a conference room in a Moscow hotel.
“So far the atmosphere is not positive,” the Iranian negotiator said.
“Setting up the framework (for negotiation) is the main problem.”
The United States said the Moscow talks contained a “clear and direct” exchange of views on Iran’s need to live up to its obligations.
“What took place today (is that) we made a number of clear points to the Iranians our concerns with their nuclear program,” said Ben Rhodes, a US deputy national security advisor, speaking at the G20 summit in Mexico.
“The Iranians came back today with a set of points in response to those concerns. The P5+1 one was unified in responding very forcefully that the onus is on the Iranians to come in line with their obligations.”
After meeting in Mexico, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin jointly warned Iran it must comply with its nuclear obligations and “undertake serious efforts aimed at restoring international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program.”
The Iranians withdrew for private talks with senior Russian officials after the first full session to plan their next move.
The decision highlights the sway Russia still has over its Soviet-era ally and the role it can play in forcing a compromise out of its leadership that could stave off the threat of possible military attack.
Failure in the talks could carry a heavy cost with the United States and its ally Israel refusing to rule out the option of airstrikes against the Iranian nuclear program and Tehran facing sanctions that could cripple the economy.
But Iran made clear ahead of the negotiations it has no intention of abandoning its right to enrich uranium, the process which can be used to make nuclear fuel but also the explosive core of an atomic bomb.
“If this demand isn’t recognized, the negotiations are certainly headed for failure,” an unidentified Iranian official at the talks said, according to state news agency IRNA.
Diplomatic sources have said Iran would be offered a compromise plan under which it would scale down the degree to which uranium is enriched at its main enrichment facility in Natanz from 20 percent to 3.5 or 5 percent.
The proposal would also require Iran to freeze all enrichment at its underground Fordo facility deep in the mountains outside the holy city of Qom or even close the plant altogether.
A former Iranian negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, likened the powers’ proposal to swapping “diamonds for peanuts,” telling Reuters that the Moscow talks would probably fail without substantial concessions by the six powers.
Iran is also seeking an end to increasingly tough economic sanctions which have in recent months directly targeted its ability to export oil, its economic lifeblood.