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West wary, Iran upbeat after nuclear talks

Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili speaks at a press conference after the talks on Iran's nuclear program in the Kazakh city of Almaty on Wednesday.Stanislav Filippov / AFP - Getty Images

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Another round of talks between six world powers and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program ended Wednesday. And like the air in fog-engulfed Almaty, the Kazakh city where the meetings were held, nothing was very clear at the conclusion of the latest negotiations.

The only thing both sides seemed able to agree on was that they would meet again: The next high-level talks will be held on April 5 and 6, again in Almaty.


While Tehran maintains it is not seeking nuclear weapons, both sides seemed just as far away from an agreement to resolve the dispute that could lead to military conflict in the Middle East.

Israel has hinted that it could strike Iran's nuclear sites if current diplomatic efforts failed to stop its enrichment of uranium to near weapons-grade. Israel is thought to be the only country in the region with a nuclear arsenal.

An American diplomat speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity said that Iran was offered minor sanctions relief if Tehran was willing to scale back certain elements of its nuclear program. It is generally accepted that neither side wants a complete breakdown in talks.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili was upbeat and smiling after the talks concluded, and said that the offers made by the world powers was more realist than previous ones.

"In this round of talks we have witnessed that despite all the attitudes during the last eight months, they tried to get closer to our viewpoints," he told journalists.

He also said Western powers had made no demands that Iran shut down a uranium enrichment facility in Fordow, which is hidden deep inside a mountain.

Jalili concluded by saying that Iran had made massive achievements since the last round of talks and that it would not give up its rights.

One Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that that halting enriching uranium to 20 percent fissile purity — a short technical step from weapons grade — shipping out current stockpiles and shutting Fordow was still a prerequisite for world powers.

Speaking to journalists for the six powers, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that she was glad that the Iranians saw this as a positive meeting.

"I hope the Iranian side is looking positively on the proposal we put forward," she said.

"We have to see what happens next,” she added, striking a cautious tone.

She only took three questions from journalists, replying with very short answers.

Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, one thing that the Iranian team has to look forward to is the approaching Persian New Year.  This, the most important holiday on the calendar, is a time for shopping, buying presents for family and friends and decorations for the festive season.

The sense that a deal is on the horizon could strengthen the Iranian currency, which has been in free-fall under pressure from Western sanctions.  A strengthened rial would give ordinary Iranians more purchasing power, and the government more breathing space.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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