By Michael Lipin, VOA
Iran and world powers have agreed to more talks about the Iranian nuclear program, after negotiators for those nations offered new concessions and Iran responded by asking for a quick follow-up meeting. The significant developments came Wednesday, at the end of a two-day meeting of Iranian and world power representatives in Kazakhstan, where they engaged in their first high-level talks since last June.
photo from Donya-e Eqtesad newspaper published in Iran
Speaking in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, Iran's top negotiator Saeed Jalili welcomed the new proposals by the six nations as "more realistic" than previous ones and called them a "turning point" in negotiations with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
The talks have been aimed at addressing Western concerns that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons under the cover of a peaceful energy program - a charge Tehran denies.
Diplomats in Almaty said the world powers proposed lifting sanctions on Iranian gold and other precious metals in return for Iran suspending the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity at its Fordo underground facility.
Previously, the six nations had limited their offers to ending restrictions on spare parts for Iranian civilian airliners. They also had insisted on a full shutdown of the Fordo complex.
Now, it appears that world powers are ready to accept some lower-grade enrichment at Fordo, provided that higher-grade enrichment to 20-percent purity is stopped and cannot be quickly restarted.
A senior U.S. official in Almaty said there is no deadline on the world powers' offer, but also warned time is running short for Iran to accept it.
As they wrapped up the Almaty talks, the two sides agreed to hold an expert-level meeting on March 18 in Istanbul, Turkey, followed by another meeting of top negotiators starting April 5.
VOA correspondent Bijan Farhoodi in Almaty said sources told him that the request for a speedy resumption of negotiations came from Iran.
"Something started rolling in Almaty that was not happening before. In the past, the space between the talks was much longer," Farhoodi said.
"The [two sides] never agreed to meet on a date so close to that of the previous conference. Now [the Iranians] are asking for less than a month [until] the next conference, so this is a way of signaling that Iran wants to get these sanctions lifted and accommodate the [six powers]."
The U.N. Security Council has imposed several rounds of sanctions on Iran to try to pressure it into curbing enrichment activities that could be used to make a nuclear bomb. Several nations, including the United States, also have imposed unilateral penalties on Iranian entities.
Iran's economy has weakened under the sanctions, with key oil revenues falling, unemployment rising and inflation soaring. Diplomats at the Almaty talks said the world powers did not propose lifting penalties against the Iranian oil and financial sectors.
Farhoodi said Iranian negotiators repeated their previous offer to cooperate with the major powers in nuclear and non-nuclear matters in return for an end to sanctions. He said Iran hopes to somehow merge its proposal with that of the six nations in the next round of talks.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who represented the six nations, said she hopes the Iranian side will look at their new proposal "positively."
"The offer addresses international concerns [about] the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program, but is also responsive to Iranian ideas," she said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the Almaty talks were "useful." Speaking on a visit to Paris, he said if Iran engages in serious negotiations, it could lead to a long-term resolution of the nuclear dispute.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the U.S.-based Arms Control Association, said he was surprised by Iran's eagerness to keep talking.
"The Iranians have their own political process they have to navigate," Kimball said. "They have June [presidential] elections. So, it was surprising to some of us that they did agree to another round of talks because there are strong political reasons why they simply wouldn't want to reach a deal in the near term."
Iran has long resisted international pressure to curb uranium enrichment. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said Tehran recently began installing a new generation of centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment plant, a move U.S. officials have deemed "provocative."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday the international community should intensify existing Iranian sanctions and warn Tehran that continued enrichment will lead to "military sanctions." He did not elaborate.
Israel has long warned that it could strike Iranian nuclear sites to prevent the development of a bomb that it says would threaten its existence due to Iranian leaders' calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Iran sees Israel's widely-assumed nuclear arsenal as a major threat to peace in the region.
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