Negotiators from Iran and the so-called P5-plus-1 group -- the U.S., Britain,… (Shamil Zhumatov / European…)
WASHINGTON — Iranian officials did not directly respond Friday to the latest American-backed offer to curb Tehran's disputed nuclear program, raising the possibility that the high-level diplomatic effort may be suspended for at least a few months.
Iranian and international negotiators meeting in Kazakhstan engaged in a "long and substantial discussion" but remained "a long way apart on the substance," said a Western official, who asked to remain unidentified, citing sensitive diplomatic issues.
The first day of talks in Almaty was "substantive, but we don't yet have any progress to report," Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said in Washington. Talks resume Saturday.
Nuland said Iranian officials planned to meet privately with some delegations, but no U.S.-Iranian session was planned. President Obama has encouraged direct talks, but Iranian authorities have rejected the idea in past meetings.
U.S. and other Western officials said before the meeting that Tehran needed to provide a clear and concrete reply to the proposal they made in February. Western members of the so-called P5-plus-1 negotiating group — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia — threatened to suspend the talks and increase economic sanctions if Tehran failed to make a counteroffer.
However, Iranian officials insisted Friday that they had offered a "comprehensive proposal" and were ready to negotiate.
Ali Bagheri, a senior Iranian nuclear negotiator, told Iran's state-controlled press that Iran had offered "clear proposals for the beginning of a new round of cooperation."
The meeting is the fifth since early 2012 over Iran's uranium enrichment program. Many nations fear Tehran is developing a weapons capability that could threaten Israel and destabilize the Mideast. Iran insists it needs nuclear energy for electricity and other civilian purposes.
Western diplomats do not expect the Almaty talks to produce a breakthrough. They believe Iranian leaders are unlikely to take major political risks before their nation's presidential election in June.
Shortly after talks began Friday, Iranian officials claimed they had made a counteroffer, and Western officials said they hadn't.
The Western official said diplomats were puzzled because the Iranians had offered only "general comments" without addressing the group's offer.
The six world powers have asked Iran to suspend operations at its underground uranium enrichment plant at Fordow, to halt production of medium-enriched uranium that could be turned into bomb fuel, and to send most of the current stockpile out of the country. In return, they offered limited suspension of international economic sanctions.
The Iranians' response was to reiterate the deal they offered in June in Moscow. They said they would freeze production of medium-enriched uranium in return for a lifting of all sanctions. The West views that proposal as unacceptable.
Cliff Kupchan, a former State Department official now at the Eurasia Group consulting firm in Washington, said the talks were stopping short of real negotiations. He said the approach could lead to a suspension of further talks.
He said Tehran's negotiating team appeared on "the typical Iranian glide path," in which it starts with strong ideological declarations, then moves into a detailed discussion but never engages in the back-and-forth that could lead to a deal.
A suspension could spark calls for the West to impose tougher sanctions or to plan military action. But even if talks are frozen, it does not end the chance for diplomacy since U.S. officials say Iran is unable to build a bomb before at least mid-2014, and Israel has eased off hints it might attack Iran's nuclear installations this spring.
Times staff writer Richter reported from Washington and special correspondent Mostaghim from Tehran.