Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inspects the Natanz nuclear plant… (Iranian President's Office…)
WASHINGTON — Six world powers floated a modestly improved proposal to Iran on Tuesday as talks on Tehran's disputed nuclear program resumed after an eight-month hiatus, with little expectation of a breakthrough.
Opening a two-day session in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the so-called P5-plus-1 group offered to slightly ease economic sanctions if Tehran halts production of near-weapons-grade uranium fuel. The powers — China, Russia, France, Britain, Germany and the United States — fear Iran is seeking the ability to make bombs, an intent it denies.
The world powers have proposed allowing Iran to trade in gold and some other precious metals, a change that would ease the sanctions that have largely severed Iran from the world banking system. They also offered to ease sanctions on petrochemical sales and relax some banking restrictions.
In exchange, Iran would have to stop producing so-called medium-enriched uranium at its underground plant at Fordow.
Iran's state-run Press TV said in an English-language broadcast that the offer would provide only "minor relief" and was "not a balanced proposal" from Iran's point of view. But in other accounts, in Persian, the government-controlled media praised the six nations' proposal, suggesting the Iranians might be taking it seriously, said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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." A State Department spokesman in Washington declined to comment on whether there had been progress in the talks.
Representatives of the six nations met with the Iranians as a group for more than two hours. Later in the day, the Iranians held bilateral sessions with China and European countries, though not with the United States. After an evening session, the two sides adjourned, planning to resume talks Wednesday.
Iranian officials say they plan to offer their own proposal shaped by what they were offered.
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 was running out and that Washington could yet turn to military action to prevent Tehran from acquiring a bomb. 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 their expectations are modest and that the most they might achieve from the talks is an agreement to have several lower-level follow-up meetings in the next several months.
Cliff Kupchan, a former State Department official at the Eurasia Group consulting firm in Washington, said he believed the two sides had sweetened their previous offers more than expected, slightly increasing the chances of more meetings over the next three months. But he said he didn't expect serious negotiations until the fall.
The Iranian presidential election cycle is expected to interrupt talks for much of the year. The election will be held in June, but the new president will not be in office until August.