VIENNA (Reuters) - An agreement to hold more talks in the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program was probably the best result major powers could have hoped for in their first meeting with the Islamic Republic in more than a year.
But while the outcome of two days of discussions in Geneva -- a plan to meet again early next year in Turkey -- may keep Western hopes alive of possible progress toward resolving the row, there was no sign of any rapprochement in substance.
“To be honest, it was an exchange of rather familiar positions, but done in a tone which at least sometimes was better than it’s been in the past,” a European official said.
Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, made clear his country would not back down over its uranium enrichment work, which the West suspects is aimed at developing nuclear weapons capability but Tehran says is for peaceful electricity only.
The powers involved in efforts to find a diplomatic solution -- the United States, Russia, France, Germany, Britain and China -- want Iran to reassure the world about its goals by curbing enrichment and accepting more effective U.N. inspections.
But analysts say Iran’s hardline leaders, who use the nuclear program to rally nationalist support and distract from domestic problems, are unlikely to agree to the demands.
“This government has obviously linked the development of the nuclear program so closely to its own legitimacy that it would be difficult for them to backtrack on it,” said Gala Riani of the IHS Global Insight consultancy.
Western officials say tougher international sanctions imposed on Iran since June are damaging the oil-dependent economy, and they hope this will eventually persuade Tehran to enter serious negotiations about its nuclear program.
“PAINFUL” COMPROMISE POSSIBLE?
Iran dismisses the impact of these penalties, saying trade and other measures imposed since the 1979 Islamic revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah have made the country stronger.
Such rhetoric is to be expected from Tehran, but experts and diplomats are far from confident that external pressure alone would be enough to force Tehran to climb down, with some suggesting the big powers may also have to compromise.
Echoing the views of others, analyst Nicole Stracke of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center said the West could agree to continued enrichment, which can yield fuel for power plants or atomic bombs, under certain conditions.
Under this scenario, Iran would need to let the U.N. nuclear watchdog carry out more intrusive, wider-ranging inspections to make sure it is not secretly developing nuclear warheads.
“It would be painful but it could be acceptable for the U.S.,” Stracke said about the possibility of the powers retreating from their demand that Iran suspends all enrichment-related activities, provided that Tehran accepts tougher inspections. “It puts the ball in the Iranian corner.”
Shannon Kile, proliferation expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said he believed the world powers and Iran needed “to break out of a zero-sum game... to a situation where both sides can come away claiming a win.”
But prospects for this look dim for now, as the demand that Iran shelve enrichment is enshrined in repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions and Tehran has ruled out more far-reaching inspections as long as sanctions remain in place, sometimes accusing the West of planting spies among U.N. inspectors.
In Geneva, a U.S. official said enrichment suspension remained the powers’ position.
A senior Western diplomat, from a country which is not involved in the negotiations with Iran, said he did not believe the Obama administration could sign up to any deal relaxing this demand ahead of the 2012 presidential election -- to avoid being portrayed as “soft” on Iran by hawkish Republican rivals.
“I just don’t think the politics will work,” the Vienna-based diplomat said, adding that the diplomatic track on Iran appeared not to be going anywhere.
Israel and the United States have not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to resolve the dispute. But U.S. military chiefs have made clear they view it as a last resort, fearing it could ignite wider conflict in the Middle East.
Nuclear expert Ivanka Barzashka at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) said a proposal to swap nuclear fuel, which stalled last year, could offer a way to build trust.
Under the plan, Iran would send some of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad in return for higher-refined fuel for a research reactor in Tehran which produces medical isotopes.
Both Iran and the United States have suggested the idea could be revived, even though they remain far apart on the terms for such an exchange. The West would want Iran to send out most of its LEU to divest of a potential stockpile for atomic bombs.
“The fuel deal proposed in October 2009 is an indirect way to address the issue of Iran’s uranium enrichment and, if successful, will be a much needed confidence-building measure,” Barzashka said in an e-mailed comment.
Editing by Mark Heinrich