ALMATY - World powers are expected to offer Iran limited
sanctions relief on Tuesday if it agrees to halt its most sensitive nuclear
work, in a new attempt to resolve a dispute that threatens to trigger another
war in the Middle East.
In their first meeting in eight months - time
that Iran has used to expand atomic activity that the West suspects is aimed at
developing a bomb capability - the powers hope Iran will engage in serious talks
on finding a diplomatic solution.
But with the Islamic Republic's
political elite pre-occupied with worsening internal infighting ahead of a June
presidential election, few believe the meeting Tuesday and Wednesday in the
Kazakh city of Almaty will yield an immediate breakthrough.
diplomats and analysts say, Iran will take the joint offer from the United
States, Russia, France, Germany, Britain and China seriously and agree to hold
further talks soon on how to implement practical steps to ease the
"What we would like to see tomorrow is a recognition by our
Iranian colleagues that our offer is a serious one ... but it is not the final
act in the play," said one diplomat participating in the talks. "I wouldn't
predict a decisive breakthrough." Iran is showing no sign, however, of backing
down over a nuclear programme it says is for entirely peaceful energy purposes.
The programme has drawn tough Western sanctions that have greatly reduced its
oil exports, an economic lifeline.
A UN nuclear watchdog report last
week said Iran was for the first time installing advanced centrifuges that would
allow it to significantly speed up its enrichment of uranium, which can have
both civilian and military purposes.
Western officials say the powers'
offer - an updated version of one rejected by Iran in the last meeting in June -
would include an easing of sanctions of trade in gold and other precious metals
if Tehran closes its Fordow enrichment plant.
The stakes are high.
Israel, assumed to be the only nuclear-armed power in the Middle East, has
hinted strongly at possible military action to prevent its foe from obtaining
such arms. Iran has threatened to retaliate hard if attacked.
talks are due to start in Almaty at 0730 GMT (2:30 a.m. EST).
"The window for a diplomatic solution simply cannot by definition
remain open forever. But it is open today. It is open now," U.S. Secretary of
State John Kerry told a news conference in London this week.
still time but there is only time if Iran makes the decision to come to the
table and negotiate in good faith." Western officials acknowledge an easing of
U.S. and European sanctions on trade in gold represents a relatively modest
step. But it could be used as part of barter transactions that might allow Iran
to circumvent tight financial sanctions.
Iran so far appears to be
showing little interest. Its Foreign Ministry spokesman last week dismissed the
reported incentive as insufficient and a senior Iranian lawmaker has ruled out
closing Fordow, located close to the holy city of Qom.
deep underground to better protect it against enemy attacks, is at the heart of
the international community's concerns over Iran's nuclear programme as it is
where it refines its higher-grade uranium.
Iran says it enriches uranium
to a fissile concentration of 20 percent to make fuel for a medical research
reactor in the capital Tehran. But it also represents most of the work required
to reach weapons-grade material of 90 percent.
Tehran denies Western
allegations that it is seeking to develop the capability to make nuclear bombs,
saying it only wants to fuel a planned network of atomic energy plants. It wants
sanctions eased and recognition of what it sees as its right to refine uranium
for peaceful purposes.
A US official said the powers hoped that the
Almaty meeting would lead to follow-up talks, either at a political or technical
level, before Iran's New Year celebrations in late March.
"We are ready
to step up the pace of our meetings and our discussions," the official said,
adding the United States was also ready to hold bilateral talks if Iran was
serious about it.