Almaty Readies to Host Int’l Powers for Talks over Iran’s Nuclear Programme

The world’s powers, including Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States, are set to meet with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Feb. 26, for a new round of talks on that country’s nuclear programme.

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Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city of 1.5 million, is getting ready to host top negotiators from relevant countries for an important round of talks.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, represented by Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, is set to meet the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, colloquially known as the EU Foreign Minister, Catherine Ashton, who is expected to co-chair the negotiations leading the EU delegation. Wendy R. Sherman, undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department, is set to lead the US delegation.

The P5+1, or EU3+3, depending on how one chooses to count, suspect Iran of developing nuclear weapons under the guise of its peaceful nuclear programme. Tehran says its nuclear programme is aimed solely at meeting the country’s electricity needs. Last year, representatives of the same six countries and Iran held three rounds of talks in Istanbul (April 14), Baghdad (May 23-24) and Moscow (June 18-19), all of which ended without any breakthroughs. Before those three rounds of talks, negotiations with Iran had not been conducted in over a year.

Kazakhstan will not play a role in the negotiations, other than being a host country. However, Kanat Saudabayev, director of the Nazarbayev Center and chairman of the Commission on Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, believes the location of the talks in this country is not coincidental. “The fact that the participants in the new round of international talks on Iran’s nuclear programme are going to hold a meeting in Kazakhstan is further proof of the recognition of the initiatives of our country in the field of non-proliferation and reducing the nuclear threat,” he said.

Ashton said the talks are a window of opportunity for achieving “real progress” regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. What progress means is open for interpretation, but one thing is clear: these negotiations will be the most pressing and urgent to date.

Iran recently stated its intention to install advanced centrifuges of the IR2m type at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz, which could significantly increase the production of enriched nuclear material. According to Ashton, this would “add to the already severe concerns of the international community about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme” and would be a “clear violation of Iran’s international obligations to suspend all enrichment and enrichment related activities.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed the new round of negotiations, but harshly criticized Iran. In a statement, he said Britain wanted to find a diplomatic solution, “but the need to make progress is increasingly urgent. Iran continues to enrich uranium in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions and on a scale that has no plausible civilian explanation.”

Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israel’s military intelligence directorate, recently told journalists that Iran has what it needs to build a nuclear bomb in a matter of four to six months. “Iran has completed in the last two years two components that… give it all of the necessary means to manufacture a nuclear weapon as soon as it chooses to do so,” Yadlin said.

Hague said world powers have made Iran “an updated and credible offer.”

“The onus is on Iran to respond seriously and turn its declared willingness to negotiate into concrete action,” he said.

World powers have used selective economic sanctions and diplomacy to try to persuade Tehran to halt, or scale back, its uranium enrichment. However, negotiations over the last year failed to produce a breakthrough and European courts are deeming the sanctions on Iranian banks and state companies as illegal. The EU’s General Court said the EU had failed to provide sufficient evidence that Bank Saderat was involved in Iran’s nuclear programme. A week earlier, the court issued a similar ruling about Bank Mellat, the biggest private sector lender in Iran.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that he welcomed the United States’ willingness to hold direct talks with Tehran in the standoff over its nuclear aspiration but didn’t commit to accepting any terms it might be offered. Salehi insisted that Washington must show “fair and real” intentions to resolve the issue and complained about “threatening rhetoric.” Tehran has announced that it welcomes the fact that the P5+1 group are ready to hold constructive talks with Iran.

The United States, Israel and some of their allies have repeatedly accused Iran of pursuing non-civilian objectives in its nuclear energy programme. Iran rejects such allegations, arguing that as a committed signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it is entitled to develop and acquire nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

In addition, the IAEA has conducted numerous inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities. However, it has never found any convincing evidence to prove that the Iranian nuclear programme is used for nuclear weapons production.

At the end of January, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the world community should take a realistic approach to the talks in order to achieve their goals. “The success of talks on Iran’s nuclear programme depends on the agency’s compliance with the realities,” Ali-Asghar Soltanieh was quoted as saying by Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

As a predominately Muslim secular country that voluntarily gave up its large nuclear arsenal, Kazakhstan is very clear in its stance on nuclear issues. President Nazarbayev, having closed the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site in 1991, takes pride in the country’s leading role as a driver of nuclear non-proliferation around the world. To further contribute to the strengthening of the security of the international nuclear fuel cycle, in 2009 Kazakhstan offered to host an international nuclear fuel bank under the IAEA.

Saudabayev said the Kazakh side “sees the possibility of a new round of international talks on Iran’s nuclear programme as a very important and positive development.”

Saudabayev expressed the hope that “the talks will be a significant step in building trust and understanding between the parties and contribute to resolving the situation diplomatically, to the reduction of tension in the region.”

In its statement on the matter, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry said Kazakhstan will do its utmost to provide all necessary conditions and conducive environment to successfully hold the negotiations which bear an exceptional importance for global security and stability.

The talks in Almaty are set to attract not only negotiators from the seven countries involved but also scores of foreign journalists. Already, as of February 15, more than a hundred foreign journalists have sought accreditation for the talks, according to the press service of Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry.