Iran nuclear talks end without agreement

EU foreign policy chief says ‘positions remain far apart’ after Kazakhstan meeting

Sat, Apr 6, 2013, 17:23

World powers and Iran failed again to ease their decade-old dispute over Tehran's disputed nuclear programme in talks that ended today, prolonging a stand-off that risks spiralling into a new Middle East war.

The lack of a breakthrough in the two-day meeting in Kazakhstan aimed at easing international concern over Iran's contested nuclear activity marked a further setback for diplomatic efforts to resolve the row peacefully.

It is also likely to strengthen suspicions in Israel - which threatens air strikes, if necessary, to stop its arch-enemy from getting the bomb - that Iran is using diplomacy as a stalling tactic.

"Over two days of talks, we had long and intensive discussions," European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.

"It became clear that our positions remain far apart," Ms Ashton, who represents the six powers - the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany - in dealings with Iran, told a news conference.

Underlining the lack of substantial progress during the negotiations in the Kazakh commercial centre of Almaty - the second meeting there this year - no new talks between the two sides were scheduled.

But a senior US official said there had been no breakdown in the negotiations with Iran.

"There was no breakthrough but also no breakdown," the official, who declined to be identified, said. "Our intention is to proceed," he said, referring to a US commitment to further diplomatic efforts.

Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili acknowledged differences between the two sides.

"We proposed our plan of action and the other party was not ready and they asked for some time to study the idea," he told a separate news conference.

Russia's negotiator sounded more upbeat, saying the talks were a "step forward" although no compromise had been reached.

"Certainly, these talks were a step forward," Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said. But he added that it was premature to name a date and venue for further talks.

Iran's critics accuse it of covertly seeking the means to produce nuclear bombs. Israel, widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, sees Iran's nuclear programme as a potential threat to its existence.

Iran says its nuclear energy programme is entirely peaceful but UN inspectors suspect it has worked illicitly on designing a nuclear weapon.

With all sides aware that a breakdown in diplomacy could shunt the protracted stalemate a step closer to war, no one in Almaty was talking about abandoning diplomatic efforts.

Ms Ashton said that for the first time there had been a "real back and forth between us when were able to discuss details, to pose questions, and to get answers directly ... To that extent, that has been a very important element"

But, she added: "What matters in the end is substance."

With a presidential election due in Iran in June, scope for a breakthrough was slim in Almaty. Iran declined to accept or reject an offer of modest relief from economic sanctions in exchange for curbing its most sensitive nuclear activity.