The latest round of talks between the West and Iran on the latter’s nuclear programme ends in a stalemate amidst rising tensions and heated rhetoric. By JOHN CHERIAN

The talks to resolve the long-running dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme seem to have once again ended in a stalemate. The latest round, the second within a short span of time, took place in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, in early April. The venue was chosen as Kazakhstan had positioned itself as an honest broker between the West and Iran. In the previous round of talks held in Almaty in February, between the P5+1, comprising the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, and Iran, the two sides decided to adjourn the meeting on a slightly positive note, claiming that some progress had been made.

But, at the latest round, the situation seems to have reverted to square one. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who was the head of the P5+1 delegation, told the media that the two sides had failed to reach an agreement and that they still “remain far apart on substance”. The Iranian side once again refused to countenance the core demand of the West, of bringing down its uranium enrichment level from the current 20 per cent. In return, Tehran was offered a modest relief from the international sanctions Iran has been subjected to. At the February talks, the Iranians were told specifically that some of the sanctions on their petrochemical products and trade in gold would be lifted if Tehran closed one of its nuclear facilities. However, there were no promises from the West regarding the lifting of the major sanctions that have hobbled the export of Iranian oil and adversely impacted the Iranian economy.

Tehran has stuck to its position that the international community should first recognise its inherent right as a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory to enrich uranium before meaningful concessions from its side could be expected. Iran’s top political leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has repeatedly stated that the country does not want to be a nuclear power. Ayatollah Khamenei has said that possessing nuclear weaponry is against the tenets of Islam.

Two days after the collapse of the latest round of talks, Iran announced the opening of a new uranium production facility and two uranium extraction facilities. Iran enriches uranium to both 3.5 and 20 per cent levels at the Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilities. The U.N. Security Council had passed a resolution in 2006 demanding that Iran stop the processing of uranium.

Both sides have now hardened their positions. The United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, on a visit to Israel, once again emphasised that the Obama administration had not ruled out the option of war against Iran. President Barack Obama repeated that “all options are on the table” to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Israel has been threatening to use this option for many years now. Israel has been warning that Iran is only a few months away from having the material to fabricate a nuclear bomb. The Iranian President, speaking in the second week of March, claimed that his country now had mastery “over the entire chain of nuclear energy”.

The two sides have, however, agreed to continue talking despite the rising tensions and heated rhetoric. Catherine Ashton said that “there was a real back and forth” during the latest round of talks. The general consensus was that though there was no breakthrough, there was also no breakdown of communications between the two sides. Catherine Ashton said that she hoped to get in touch with Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili “in order to see how to go forward”. Jalili on his part said that the ball was now in the court of the West. He told the media that Iran had put forward concrete proposals to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear programme. He said that the international community may need more time to study it and come back for more meaningful talks. Jalili again emphasised that there was no question of Iran ever compromising on its right to enrich uranium. He also added that talks could only succeed if certain powers gave up their “hostile intentions” towards Iran. It has become increasingly clear that Washington’s real intention is to bring in a regime change in Tehran and once again completely dominate the energy-rich region, as it did until the 1970s.

A former spokesperson for the Iranian team in talks with the U.S., Ambassador Hossein Moussavian, who is currently a research scholar in Princeton University, said that the West’s strategy was “inadvertently pushing Iran towards nuclear weapons”. The Obama administration has continued with the previous administration’s policy of characterising Iran as a “rogue state” and keeps on issuing dire threats of war against the country. A 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate based on inputs from American intelligence agencies had concluded that Iran had given up work on its nuclear weapons programme in 2002. Iran is the current Chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and has considerable backing in the international community. NAM has called for the de-nuclearisation of West Asia and demanded that Israel sign the NPT immediately. A U.N. resolution passed late last year, approved by a vote of 174-6, called for Israel to join the NPT “without further delay”. Israel has a nuclear arsenal said to contain anything between 75 to 400 nuclear warheads. NAM has voiced its strong disagreement on the sanctions being imposed on Iran which have caused widespread problems for the common people. They have adversely affected the Iranian rial and triggered runaway inflation, making the prices of essential commodities and medicines go through the ceiling.

The government has said that Iranian oil exports are down by 40 per cent, while revenues have been reduced by 45 per cent. The rial has lost half its value against the dollar. “Sanctions are painful but they make us more self-reliant,” Ayatollah Khamenei said some time back.

The unilateral American sanctions on Iran have come in for strong criticism from countries such as Brazil and South Africa. China has been ignoring the U.S.-mandated secondary sanctions and is continuing to do business with Iran. But countries such as India have buckled under U.S. pressure and reduced trade with Iran sharply. The Indian government says that it only implements U.N.-mandated sanctions and blames Indian private companies for backing down under pressure from the West.

Iran, like North Korea, is seeking guarantees that it would not be subjected to an attack by the U.S. or its allies in the region before it makes concessions on the nuclear issue. It also wants the West to spell out clearly a timeline for the lifting of the sanctions. The U.S., after all, has a long history of involvement in the internal affairs of Iran, starting from the time of the brief ouster of the Shah of Iran by the democratically elected government headed by Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953.

After the final departure of the Shah in 1979, Washington stepped up its interference despite the signing of the “Algiers Treaty” of 1981, which ended the “hostage crisis” that had erupted between the countries. The U.S. pledged at the time that it “would not intervene directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran’s internal affairs”. It also promised to remove all the sanctions it had imposed on Iran immediately after the Islamic Revolution.

Washington wasted no time on reneging on its commitment. It encouraged Iraq to invade Iran and then stood by as the two countries bled each other to bankruptcy in the war which lasted for more than eight years. There were more than a million casualties on both sides but the Iranian military proved to the world that it was no pushover and would fight to the last to preserve the country’s sovereignty and integrity. In 1988, at the fag end of that war, the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian passenger plane over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 on board.

Crying wolf On the nuclear issue, the West has been crying wolf for a long time, saying that Iran had a clandestine programme to make a nuclear weapon. In 1984, West German intelligence claimed that Iran was only two years away from the bomb. The claim was widely reported in the Western media. West Germany was building a nuclear reactor for the Shah and work on it was proceeding apace when he was overthrown.

Nuclear reactors were all right for Iran as the Shah was a staunch ally of the West. His overthrow was never considered an eventuality as he commanded one of the strongest armies in the regions and presided over a dreaded secret service known as the “Savak”.

Every other year, reports appear in the West about a new “smoking gun” that has been discovered, proving that Iran is on the verge of producing a nuclear weapon. This year, the Israelis have been claiming that Iran can now make a nuclear bomb within four to six months. In 2011, The Washington Post claimed that Iran was only 62 days away from the bomb. Taking the cake was a report in The Wall Street Journal this year stating that Iran could buy a bomb any time it wished from North Korea.

Israel has kept on threatening the use of force against Iranian nuclear installations. The U.S. Congress recently passed a resolution that it was duty bound to come to Israel’s aid if there was a military confrontation with Iran. John Kerry warned that “terrible consequences could follow the failure of talks”. The Pentagon has been systematically building up its military forces in the region while at the same time further strengthening the armed forces of its allies in the region.

The Iranian President as well as the country’s Supreme Leader have warned Washington and Tel Aviv against making any foolhardy moves. Speaking on the occasion of Iran’s Army Day on April 18, Ahmadinejad said that foreign military presence in the region was the source of insecurity in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. has military bases in almost all the monarchies in Iran’s neighbourhood. The Iranian Army chief, General Hassan Firouzabadi, warned Israel about the dangers of a military intervention. “We see Israel’s threats as a scream that comes out of fear. If they do anything wrong, there will be no Israel left on the political map,” he warned.