U.S., allies may drop demand that Iran completely halt uranium enrichment

McClatchy NewspapersMay 23, 2012 

— The United States and five other major powers exchanged extensive proposals with Iran on Wednesday over that country’s nuclear program amid signs that the U.S. and its negotiating partners were dropping demands that Iran completely halt the enrichment of uranium.

Instead, the six powers formally asked Iran to halt enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, a proposal that would allow it to continue enriching uranium to the 5 percent level Iran says it needs for electrical power generation.

The six powers have accused Iran of using its nuclear program to development a weapons capability. Nuclear weapons require a purity level of 90 percent or better.

The proposals also contained incentives for Iran, but it wasn’t clear whether the six powers had offered to ease far-reaching sanctions that have sharply hurt Iran’s economy or to suspend a cutoff of purchases of Iranian oil that’s due to go into effect July 1.

Iran, which says that its uranium enrichment program is for peaceful purposes, cautiously welcomed the six-power proposal.

"The ideas fielded to us speak of the fact that the other side would like to make Baghdad a success," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in Tehran. "We hope that in a day or two we can bring good news."

But Iran’s state news agency was critical of the six-power plan. “The problem with the package is that there is no balance, and there is nothing to get in return for what they give,” the agency said.

An easing of sanctions appeared to be the principal sticking point. An unnamed member of the Iranian delegation, who left the meeting early, said that Iran’s five-point proposal, which covered nuclear and non-nuclear issues, was aimed at reaching a “more balanced” agreement with the international powers.

He said Iran was willing to address international concerns regarding its nuclear program and was willing to allow United Nations nuclear inspectors to examine its nuclear facilities in order to ease the effects of "harsh sanctions" on the Iranian people.

Although there was no breakthrough, the talks extended into the evening, and chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili later met separately with Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s chief negotiator. Negotiations will continue Thursday.

The detailed proposal laid down by the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany was for Iran to put a stop to its uranium enrichment program to a concentration of 20 percent and to be content with 5 percent, Ashton’s spokesman, Michael Mann, said before the talks began.

Israel’s threats to bomb Iran if it didn’t halt its nuclear enrichment program have injected urgency, and tension, into the negotiations. Fears of a broader war in the region that provides much of the world’s oil supplies had driven oil prices up earlier this year.

But signals of possible progress after the first round of Iran nuclear talks in Turkey in mid-April now may be helping to bring prices down. Oil prices fell below $90 a barrel Wednesday, a good 10 percent below the levels when the current round began.

The most significant signal was a tentative accord announced Tuesday between Iran and the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency that could provide U.N. inspectors access to facilities and key officials that have long been closed to them.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiar Zebari said Iraq hoped that the talks at the very least would be a step toward reaching a formula that was agreeable to all sides.

"It is true that Iraq is not party to the negotiations and is but hosting the talks, but it is a priority to us that positive conclusions are reached, because if anything bad were to happen in the future, God forbid, Iraq will be the first to suffer."

Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent. Roy Gutman contributed to this article from Washington.

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