Last week’s talks between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers in Almaty are the first to indicate the emergence of a possible way out of the stalemate over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme. The meeting in the Kazakh city saw the Iranian side emerge upbeat. And though P5+1 diplomats have been more circumspect, the fact that technical experts from both sides will meet in Turkey on March 17 and 18 to be followed by another round involving the political negotiators suggests an opportunity has arisen for genuine progress to be made. In the talks, the P5+1 dropped three earlier demands: that Iran stop enriching uranium to a 20 per cent concentration of the U-235 isotope, that it close down its heavily fortified Fordow enrichment plant, and that it send its stockpile of enriched fuel abroad. Instead, the U.S. and its partners now want Iran only to cease enrichment at Fordow and dismantle some of the equipment there, and sharply reduce its production of 20 per cent enriched uranium. In return, Washington and the Europeans are willing to relax some existing secondary sanctions that restrict Iran’s ability to export oil and also desist from seeking new sanctions.

At one level, Western sanctions have not been entirely effective and there was already evidence, before Almaty, of their plateauing. The United States now issues blanket waivers for countries which buy Iranian oil. Secondly, the EU General Court has ruled EU sanctions on two major Iranian banks unlawful. And yet, sanctions have hit Iran’s economy and its people hard: the rial has fallen 40 per cent in the past year, and unemployment is rising. American and European bans have also intimidated many countries and private companies into suspending Iranian links. So anything which helps reverse the sanctions tide ought to be welcomed by Tehran. The latest P5+1 offer is proof that the hard-line positions the U.S. has taken on the Iranian nuclear issue in the past have been counterproductive. Two years ago, the Obama administration scuttled a Turkish-Brazilian proposal that would have involved Iran shipping a major chunk of its 3.5 per cent enriched uranium stockpile to Turkey in exchange for enough 20 per cent uranium to produce medical isotopes at the Tehran Research Reactor. By killing that deal, the U.S. merely ensured that the Iranians went ahead and produced the 20 per cent uranium themselves. It was to sidestep this sort of outcome that the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed el-Baradei, had first floated the idea of a freeze in sanctions on Iran in exchange for a freeze in enrichment. The Almaty offer suggests the U.S. has finally understood that this is the only way to move forward.

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