What's on the Table at the Almaty Nuclear Talks?

Tehran demands the total lifting of sanctions in exchange for suspending 20-percent enrichment. How much further either side is willing to go will be the drama in Kazakhstan.
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Participants from the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany prepare to start talks with Iranian negotiators in Almaty on April 5, 2013. (Reuters)

Iran and the world powers are meeting in Almaty on April 5 and 6 to once more seek a solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. Here are five things to know about the talks.

Could there be a breakthrough?

Not likely, given the distance in the negotiating positions between the two sides. But there is hope that Iran and the world powers -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany -- could narrow their differences. That's because both sides reacted positively to their last meeting in Almaty in February -- the first time they had talked after an 8-month breakdown in negotiations.

In the first round of Almaty talks, the world powers asked Iran to suspend enriching uranium to 20-percent levels at its underground Fordo facility. They also wanted Tehran to ship most of its 20-percent stockpile out of the country and allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency full access to suspected nuclear sites. In exchange, they offered to permit countries that still import Iranian oil and gas to pay in gold, despite leaving other sanctions on Iran's energy exports and banking sector in place.

Iran called the offer a sign that the world powers "have moved closer to our proposal." Tehran demands the total lifting of sanctions in exchange for suspending 20-percent enrichment.

How much further either side is now ready to go will be the drama at Almaty II.

Is the world powers' position softening?

Some analysts say so, because the key demand in the global power's latest offer was for Iran to "suspend" its 20-percent enrichment of uranium. Previously, the demand had been to "stop" all 20-percent enrichment. The 20-percent level is considered a short hop technically from the 90-percent enrichment level needed for nuclear-weapons material.

But Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Bonn, suggests that the move to "suspension" is not a sign of a weakening position so much as a more pragmatic one.

"Suspension of enrichment instead of a full stop on it would be in line with UN Security Council resolutions," he says. "Therefore, it would be easier for all six parties who are negotiating with Iran to accept that. Beyond that, any demand to stop enrichment would be more difficult for Iran because they are facing a [June presidential] election where parties are going to be arguing that there should be no compromise with the Western group."

Hibbs notes that the ultimate interpretation of what "suspension" means, and whether it would be temporary or permanent, would still have to be determined in any final negotiations aimed at ending the nuclear crisis.

Is Iran growing more cooperative?

If the measure of cooperation is how fast Iran is increasing its capacity to produce 20-percent uranium, the answer is "no." Over the past year, Iran has steadily added new centrifuges at its heavily fortified Fordo site in defiance of international calls to not do so.

But if the measure of cooperation is how quickly Iran is amassing a stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium, the answer is mixed. So far, Tehran has converted much of its 20-percent uranium into uranium oxide for medical use. That keeps its stockpile under the amount it would need for making a first bomb.

Gary Samore, an Iran expert at Harvard University, recently told a forum at the Brookings Institution that Iran does seem to be trying to lower tensions in the crisis. But it may be doing so more because of domestic concerns than international pressure:

"I do think the Iranians are exercising some constraints on their program for political reasons," he says. "[This is] mainly because, in my view, the supreme leader is focusing right now on managing the presidential elections and does not want to have to deal with a foreign-policy crisis."

What happens after Almaty II?

Even if the second round in Almaty makes no progress, both sides will want to keep talking.

The U.S. and EU are likely to react to a disappointing outcome by looking for additional sanctions to increase pressure on Tehran. But the point of the sanctions is to make Iran negotiate, so scheduling future talks is essential.

Iran also has an interest in meeting again. Many analysts suspect Tehran sees talks as a way to buy time. But Iran also is under increasing economic pressure and knows that sanctions can be eased only by coming to the negotiating table.

What both sides may ultimately be able to reach is an interim agreement that limits further sanctions in exchange for some limits on Iran's nuclear program.

According to Samore, Washington would view an interim agreement as immediately useful, whether or not it leads to the successful negotiation of a comprehensive solution later.

"Even if that negotiation fails, [an interim agreement] still creates some breathing room in terms of limiting the program and slowing down the nuclear clock and making a military attack less necessary."

Which side holds the strongest cards?

Both sides are playing a game of attrition.

The world powers hope sanctions will force Iran to make a deal by wearing down its economy. But Iran hopes to survive the sanctions long enough to see the unity of the world powers fray instead.

Success for either side could largely depend on what happens with future oil and gas prices. Currently, the sanctions are succeeding because Asian countries that are Iran's major customers have been willing to partly cut back on Iranian oil imports so long as alternative sources are available. But if there is an economic recovery and world demand for oil rises, alternative sources to Iran could become harder to find.

That makes China, currently Iran's biggest oil customer, a potential wild card as the standoff continues.


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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