GENEVA (Reuters) – Iran has indicated a readiness to scale back its most sensitive nuclear activity in a clear signal that it is willing to compromise with the West to win relief from harsh economic sanctions, diplomats said on Wednesday.
But the details of Iran’s proposals, put forward during negotiations with six world powers in Geneva, have not been made public, and Western officials were cautious whether the Islamic state was willing to go far enough to nail down a deal.
Another round of talks between Iran, the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany was expected to be scheduled in the coming weeks to try to end a protracted stand-off that could boil over into a new Middle East war.
Both sides have sought to dampen expectations of any rapid deal at the October 15-16 meeting, the first to be held since President Hassan Rouhani took office promising conciliation over confrontation in Iran’s relations with the world.
The powers want then Islamic Republic to rein in enrichment activity to allay concerns that it could be applied to developing nuclear bombs rather than, as Tehran says, to generating electricity and producing isotopes for medicine.
After the first day of talks in Geneva, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi suggested Tehran was prepared to address long-standing calls to give the U.N. nuclear watchdog wider inspection powers.
He also told the official IRNA news agency that measures related to its uranium enrichment were part of the Iranian proposal, but hinted that the Islamic Republic was not inclined to make its concessions quickly.
“Neither of these issues are within the first step (of the Iranian proposal) but form part of our last steps,” he said without elaborating, in comments reported on Wednesday.
The sequence of any concessions by Iran and any sanctions relief by the West could prove a serious obstacle en route to an breakthrough agreement. Western officials have said repeatedly that Iran must suspend enriching uranium to 20 percent fissile purity, their main concern, before sanctions are eased.
“Are we there yet? No, but we need to keep talking,” a Western diplomat said as talks resumed at midday on Wednesday.
Israel, Iran’s arch-foe, urged the powers to be tough in the talks by demanding a total shutdown of enrichment and ruling out any early relaxation of sanctions. But it did not repeat veiled threats to bomb Iran if it deems diplomacy pointless.
Western diplomats were hesitant to divulge specifics about the negotiations due to sensitivities involved – both in Tehran, where conservative hardliners are skeptical about striking deals that could curtail the nuclear program, and in Washington, where hawks are reluctant to support swift sanctions relief.
But Iran, diplomats said, has made much more concrete proposals – in contrast with the ideological lectures and obfuscations that dogged previous meetings, to the point that its negotiators were concerned about details being aired in public before they had had a chance to sell them back in Tehran.
Diplomats said the other proposals Iranian envoys had made regarding eventual “confidence-building” steps include halting 20 percent enriched uranium production and possibly converting at least some of existing 20 percent stockpiles – material that worries the powers because is only a short technical stage away from weapons-grade fuel – to uranium oxide, among other things.
COMPLETE HALT TO ENRICHMENT OUT OF QUESTION
But Iran did not intend to renounce all enrichment itself “under any circumstances,” the Russian state news agency RIA quoted an unnamed Iranian delegation source as saying.
He was dismissing the maximal demand of U.S. and Israeli hawks which Western diplomats concede would undermine Rouhani’s authority at home by exposing him to accusations of a sell-out from conservative hardliners in the clerical and security elite.
“Apart from suspending 20 percent enrichment, it is possible to consider a scenario involving reducing the number of centrifuges (enriching uranium),” RIA quoted the delegate as saying. “However, for this, concrete steps from our opponents are required, which we do not see yet.”
Iran has sharply expanded its uranium enrichment capacity in recent years and it now has roughly 19,000 installed such machines. Of those, about 10,400 are currently enriching, a U.N. watchdog report showed in August.
The fact that Iran has so many idle centrifuges suggests it could quickly expand the work, if it wanted, or possibly use them as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the powers.
Wednesday’s talks started with some delay, as delegations from the six nations met separately with Iranian diplomats in an effort to extract further details of its suggestions.
“There is still an awful lot of work to be done,” said a spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who oversees diplomacy with Iran on behalf of the six.
“We have had a certain amount of information from the Iranian side and we will hope to get more detail from them tomorrow,” spokesman Michael Mann said after the first day of talks on Tuesday.
Araqchi told reporters on Tuesday morning his side had presented a proposal capable of achieving a breakthrough. But he later added it was not possible to tell whether progress was being made. “It’s too soon to judge,” he told Reuters.
Rouhani’s election in June heightened hopes in the West that Iran was finally ready to do a deal. Tehran has become increasingly anxious to be rid of Western-led sanctions which have impaired its economy, cut its oil export revenues 60 percent and brought about a devaluation of its rial currency.
Iran has previously spurned Western demands that it shelve 20 percent enrichment as an initial step in return for modest sanctions relief, rather repeatedly calling for the most painful trade sanctions, such in the oil sector, to be rescinded.
(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl, Yeganeh Torbati and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Marcus George in Dubai, editing by Mark Heinrich)