EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton arrives for a news conference… (Ilyas Omarov, AFP/Getty…)
WASHINGTON — The latest round of international negotiations over Iran's disputed nuclear program concluded Saturday with no sign of progress and the future of the fitful diplomatic effort uncertain.
Officials from Iran and the six world powers had "long and intensive discussions" in the two-day session in Kazakhstan, but ended "far apart on the substance," Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, said in Almaty.
The group didn't schedule another meeting, as they usually have done in the past to show that diplomacy would continue with at least low-level conversations. Officials also said the two sides did not narrow their differences in the final minutes, as often happens.
Ashton said the six nations — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — would evaluate how to proceed.
Sergei Ryabkov, the chief Russian negotiator, said, "Unfortunately, we have failed to achieve a breakthrough," the Interfax news agency reported. Like U.S. and European officials, he said he was encouraged by the detailed exchanges, however.
The Almaty meeting was the fifth round of talks in less than two years without producing a deal to curtail Iran's nuclear program. During that time, Iran has absorbed what are meant to be crippling international sanctions against its oil industry, financial sector and other parts of the economy without conceding.
U.S. and other Western officials had sought to keep expectations low for the Almaty meeting, believing that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was unlikely to agree to a politically sensitive deal during the run-up to the Iranian presidential election in June.
They hope that later in the summer Khamenei will be willing to agree to curbs on the nuclear program to relieve pressure on the economy. The West's immediate goal is to persuade Iran to halt production of medium-enriched uranium that could be quickly converted to bomb fuel.
Many nations fear that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons capability. Iran insists that it is advancing only its civilian nuclear effort.
Cliff Kupchan, a former State Department official now at the Eurasia Group consulting firm in Washington, said the outcome was "predictably bad," and that Iranian officials "didn't pack their suitcase with any concessions."
But he said the poor results didn't snuff out hope for a diplomatic solution because Khamenei remains under strong pressure to improve the economy.
Both sides sought at the Almaty talks to show that they were ready to make a deal and to portray the other side as intransigent.
Western officials said the onus was on Iran to respond to a proposal the six laid out in February. It called for Iran to stop enriching uranium at an underground facility, to halt production of medium-enriched uranium and to ship out most of its existing stockpile. In return, the group offered Iran limited relief from sanctions.
Western officials said Iran didn't adequately respond to that offer.
But Iran contended that it had responded with a three-stage proposal. It offered to temporarily halt production of medium-enriched uranium and resolve questions about the military dimension of its program, in return for a lifting of all sanctions and recognition of its right to enrich uranium.
The failure leaves Western officials hoping to find a way to intensify pressure on Tehran, including further reducing China's and other major consumers' demand for Iranian oil. Congress is preparing legislation to expand economic penalties on Iran for a near total trade embargo.
Unless a diplomatic resolution is found, many experts believe that by mid-2014 the White House will be confronted with a choice of either attacking Iran to destroy its nuclear facilities or accepting that Tehran has nuclear weapons capability. President Obama has vowed to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
These specialists believe Iran's program may be so advanced by then that the country will be able to assemble a bomb in several weeks, a period so short that the United States couldn't intervene.
Administration officials don't accept that mid-2014 is necessarily the United States' last chance to take military action, Kupchan said.