By Paul Richter
12:46 PM EST, February 26, 2013
WASHINGTON -- Six world powers floated a modestly improved proposal to Iranian negotiators Tuesday as talks on Tehran’s disputed nuclear program resumed after an eight-month hiatus and with little expectation of a breakthrough.
Opening a two-day session in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the so-called Five Plus One group offered to slightly ease economic sanctions on Iran if the regime will halt production of near-weapons grade uranium fuel. The six powers – China, Russia, France, Britain, Germany and the United States – fear Iran may be seeking a bomb-making capability, though Tehran denies the accusation.
The world powers have proposed allowing Iran to trade in gold and some other precious metals, a change that would slightly ease the sanctions that have largely severed Iran from the world banking system. In exchange, Iran would have to stop producing so-called medium-enriched uranium at its underground plant at Fordo.
The state-controlled Press TV of Iran derided the proposal as offering only “minor relief” and saying it was “not a balanced proposal” from Iran’s point of view.
Even so, Michael Mann, chief spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is diplomatic point person for the six powers, described the meetings as “useful.”
The six powers met with the Iranians as a group. Later in the day the Iranians held bilateral sessions with the Chinese and European countries, though not with the Americans. After an evening session, the two sides adjourned, planning to resume talks Wednesday.
Iranian officials say they plan to offer their own proposal. They said its shape would depend on what they were offered in turn.
The six powers have been waiting to see whether the international sanctions that have battered Iran’s economy make the regime more willing to negotiate curbs on its nuclear program.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry implied this week that time is running out and that the United States could yet turn to military action to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Israel has also threatened military action.
But the Iranians, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has personal control over the program, have insisted they will never yield to threats.
Western diplomats say that their expectations from the two-day sessions are modest, and that the most they may achieve is an agreement to have several lower-level follow-up meetings in the next several months to further explore the issues.