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Little progress seen as diplomats collide over Iran nuclear talks

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau –

BAGHDAD — Hopes for quick progress on Iran’s disputed nuclear program faded rapidly Wednesday, as diplomats from six world powers and Iran collided bitterly in daylong talks aimed at resolving their long-standing differences over an effort many nations fear is aimed at building a nuclear bomb.

In their second high-level meeting in as many months, representatives of the two sides offered packages of proposals intended to open a path to what is expected to be a long and difficult negotiation. But the yawning gap between the two sides quickly became apparent.

The world powers pushed Iran to give up key pieces of its nuclear program, and the Iranians complained that the six powers were not offering them a “balanced” proposal.

After discussions that lasted from 1 p.m. to midnight at a government guesthouse in Baghdad’s international zone, a senior Obama administration official acknowledged to reporters that “this has been a difficult day.”

Though the two sides agreed to reconvene Thursday, the clash illustrated how far the parties have to go to reach even the interim “confidence building” agreement that some U.S. officials had hinted might be soon within reach.

U.S. officials insisted that the difficult exchanges were not surprising and might be a sign that the two sides are finally willing to engage candidly over their differences.

But if the talks collapse, as they did in January 2011, the consequences could be dire. Israel and the United States have both said they might turn to military action to halt the Iranian program if diplomacy does not provide assurances that Iran is not trying to build a bomb.

U.S. officials demanded in their proposal that Iran halt production of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity, a material that can be converted relatively easily to use in a nuclear bomb. They asked that Iran surrender its stockpile of the material and dismantle an underground enrichment site near Qom where uranium is being enriched to 20 percent.

The world powers — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — offered to refrain from imposing further U.N. sanctions on Iran, but did not offer to suspend the tough U.S. and European sanctions on Iran’s central bank and oil sales that have sent the Iranian economy into a tailspin in the last six months.

Officials have said they could take such steps only after Iran takes irreversible steps to curb the program and comes into compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Iran responded with its own package of five proposals, some dealing with the nuclear program and others with non-nuclear issues. But Iranian officials immediately began saying that the world powers’ proposal was not “balanced,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

Iranian officials have repeatedly pressed in recent months for the world powers to provide relief on the sanctions, and have declared that enrichment is their right under the landmark Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which they are a signatory.

The senior administration official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the conflicts were not just about the sanctions, but also about the powers’ demands regarding the 20 percent enrichment and other issues.

“I would have expected nothing but for them to say that this was ‘unbalanced,’” the official said. “This is a negotiation in which we both want to get the most and give the least.”

But the official added that the harsh words were a sign that, unlike in the past, when the two sides have often avoided direct discussion, “you’re getting down to the issues that matter. … I take that as a good sign, not a bad one.”

Both sides still have powerful reasons to want to keep the negotiations on track. The sanctions are badly battering Iran’s economy, and the Obama administration knows that a failure of the talks could invite an Israeli attack on Iran that could set off a regional war, drive up oil prices and imperil the global economic recovery and President Barack Obama’s election campaign.

U.S. officials and other Western diplomats predicted after the meeting that the two sides will schedule further meetings. But the clash signaled how many pitfalls may lie ahead as the world powers try to deal quickly with the problem.

Iran and United States officials also did not have a bilateral meeting during the session, though others did. The senior administration official said this was not likely to have happened, because of Iran’s long and bitter history with the United States. Still, such a session would have been an encouraging sign that the Islamic Regime wants to work out its points of tension with America.

Ray Takeyh, a former administration adviser on Iran, said the Iranians’ unhappiness at this meeting was probably a productive signal to the Iranians that they will have to make sacrifices to settle the nuclear issue that has upset many nations.

“The Iranians are hoping to do a little and get a lot back,” he said in an email. “It was useful for (the world powers) to disabuse them of that illusion.”

He predicted, however, that the talks will continue.

“Both sides have laid out their opening positions and much haggling will continue to take place, I suppose,” he said.

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