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Tue 16 Nov 2010 04:32 PM

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Iran talks hang in the balance

Iran’s nuclear talks in December could be doomed to fail again as country resists curbs

Iran talks hang in the balance
The reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran, 1200 Kms south of Tehran
Iran talks hang in the balance
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iran is likely to stick to a stalling strategy towards world powers, seeking to blunt their pressure to curb its uranium enrichment drive without making any major concessions over work the West fears has military aims.

The Islamic state has agreed to meet with a representative of the six big powers for the first time in more than a year, but diplomats and analysts see little chance of a breakthrough in the long-running dispute over Tehran's nuclear programme.

At most, they say, the talks that could take place early next month between Iran's nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton may be followed by more meetings to halt a downward spiral in ties.

Both sides have expressed readiness to resume discussions on December 5 but they have yet to agree on a venue.

A senior Western diplomat in Tehran voiced pessimism about the latest bid to find a diplomatic solution to the row, which has the potential to kindle a regional arms race and spark a military conflict in the Middle East.

"I don't believe it will lead anywhere," the diplomat told Reuters. "The fundamental differences are so large and the room for compromise is so small."

Iranian officials have a track record of using similar sessions in the past to insist on the country's "inalienable right" to develop nuclear energy while refusing to address Western suspicions that the main aim is to build bombs.

"Time is on our side ... every passing hour we advance further," a former Iranian nuclear official said.

The six powers leading efforts to resolve the dispute diplomatically - the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany - hope tougher sanctions implemented against the Islamic Republic since June will make it more flexible.

They want Iran ultimately to agree to suspend uranium enrichment, which can have both civilian and military uses, in return for a package of economic and political incentives.

But while Iran's international isolation is hurting the oil-dependent economy, Tehran is signalling no willingness to compromise over a nuclear programme it says is solely designed for peaceful purposes such as producing electricity.

For President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has championed a steady expansion of Iran's nuclear work since he came to power in 2005, defiance towards the West is a way to rally nationalist support and distract attention from the country's economic woes.

"They are economically under pressure, but they definitely don't see that as a reason to change their policy on the nuclear issue," the Tehran-based diplomat said. "The anti-Western rhetoric has been stepped up in recent months."

Since Jalili last met with representatives of the big powers, in October 2009 in Geneva, Iran has continued to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) and now has enough for at least two bombs, if it was refined much further.

Underlining Western suspicions that Iran will try once again to avoid any talks on its sensitive atomic work, Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials have in recent weeks suggested that Tehran's rights to nuclear capabilities were non-negotiable

"We believe the issue has been resolved. We will continue our peaceful nuclear activities," Ahmadinejad said last week.

Such comments may be directed mainly at a domestic audience and EU diplomats in Brussels say they do not believe Iran is closing the door to talking about the nuclear issue.

But a Western envoy in Vienna, home to the UN nuclear watchdog, said he believed power rivalries within Iran's ruling establishment would block any attempt to reach a deal.

"I'm optimistic there will be a meeting and I'm realistic that there won't be any significant forward progress at all."

An Iranian analyst who declined to be named said the leadership could not accept an enrichment suspension as it "would harm its prestige among its core supporters".

The West may in the end have to accept Iran continuing some enrichment activity, said proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"Iran has made very clear that that is an absolute bottom line," he said. "A negotiation would explore ways that Iran can satisfy concerns whilst still maintaining some enrichment."

But he added: "I'm very pessimistic on the chances that Iran would negotiate a satisfactory outcome."

Even the possibility of reviving a plan to swap nuclear fuel, seen by the West as a possible way to build confidence for broader negotiations on Iran's nuclear programme, seems remote.

While both Iran and the United States say they are ready to resume talks on a proposal to exchange Iranian LEU for higher-grade material for a Tehran research reactor, they are far apart on how it would take place.

A tentative agreement last year under which Iran would send out 1,200 kg of LEU in return for the reactor fuel fell apart after Tehran backed away from its terms and later started producing higher-enriched material itself.

Western diplomats say Iran must now send out much more LEU under any revised deal to reflect the growing size of its stockpile, a demand Iran rejects.

Baqer Moin, an Iran expert in London, suggested the most likely scenario for the meeting between Jalili and Ashton was "more talks about talks" rather than substantive discussions.

U.S.-based Iran experts Trita Parsi and Reza Marashi said a few meetings could not resolve three decades of enmity between Tehran and Washington since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

"Success will only come if diplomats are willing to play the long game, placing a premium on patience and long-term progress rather than quick fixes aimed at appeasing sceptical and impatient domestic political constituencies," they wrote.