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Western diplomat on Iran talks: Sides still 'a long way apart'

Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili prays at a mosque in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Friday.

News analysis

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- An air of cautious optimism hung over Almaty, Kazakstan, on Friday as Western and Iranian negotiators began the first day of another round of nuclear talks.

After Friday’s talks had ended for the day, however, a Western diplomat said the sides still had work to do.

"We had a long and substantial discussion on the issues, but we remain a long way apart on the substance,” the diplomat said. “We are now evaluating the situation and will meet again tomorrow."

The six powers – the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – met Iranian officials with the aim of settling a decade-long tussle over Tehran's nuclear program.

Iran has resisted pressure -- and hardening economic sanctions -- for years arguing its uranium enrichment program is for peaceful purposes and therefore should be allowed to continue.

During the last meetings in February, the world powers appeared to have watered down their demands and offer mild relief to sanctions that have been strangling Iran’s economy.

Western diplomats were hoping for a discussion of the specific points of their proposals, such as closing a nuclear facility and shipping some enriched uranium stockpiles abroad in return for easing some sanctions.

International nuclear inspectors said Thursday Iran has made significant upgrades in its ability to enrich uranium. The US called this a provocative step – but fortunately the centrifuges were installed above ground where the US can see them. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

Iranian officials were caught off guard by what many view as the West’s relatively generous offer.

“For the first time during any of the international nuclear talks, we witnessed signals that the other side is acting in good faith,” Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi told a news conference in Tehran on March 10, referring to the last discussions also held in Almaty.

“We hope they continue to do so,” he added.

Western diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity after the February talks, also said they were cautiously optimistic. 

This attitude comes after a string of failed talks.

Both sides have accused the other of not being realistic or serious about wanting to make a deal. Throughout, the West has charged Iran with delaying tactics, and of saying one thing then doing another. 

Both sides are in a sticky spot. 

President Barack Obama came to office on a mandate to end two wars, not to open up another front. So military action against Iran to halt a nuclear weapons program could prove unpopular in the United States. 

At schools, in shops, and on the streets of big cities and small towns, daily life plays out in Iran.

Iran is also walking a tightrope: Israel has consistently said its patience with diplomacy is running out and it may resort to military strikes on Iran.

Tehran is also under pressure from sanctions. The economic distress could spill over into massive street protests, something the government definitely does not want to see in the run-up to June elections. 

Yet another issue that hangs over talks: the war in Syria.  

Iran is one of the Syrian government’s most important backers: Several senior Iranian military officials have already been killed in Damascus. Syrian rebels have accused the West of standing by as the regime of Bashar Assad kills tens of thousands of his own citizens. 

Obama’s reluctance to arm the rebels in Syria is partly because it would scupper negations with Iran over its nuclear program, according to foreign policy experts and some Western diplomats. 

Reuters contributed to this report.


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