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Iranian nuclear talks continue despite Ukraine crisis - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif smile at the start of a conference in Vienna March 18, 2014. (REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader)

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif smile at the start of a conference in Vienna March 18, 2014. (REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iran and six world powers resumed their talks over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in Vienna on Tuesday, just a week after the EU’s foreign policy chief completed a visit to Tehran, meeting with officials and female dissidents.

Talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) are expected to continue for two days on the details of Iran’s domestic uranium enrichment program, according to IRNA, the official Iranian news agency.

Aside from uranium enrichment, the other most contentious item on the agenda for this round of negotiations is said to be Iran’s heavy water reactor, under construction at Arak, which critics say represents a proliferation risk if brought online.

As a compromise, the idea of altering Arak to a Light Water Reactor (LWR), which experts say represents less of a proliferation risk, has been proposed, as has lowering its power level, which will reduce the amount of plutonium produced.

“There are different ways of making sure that the reactor can’t produce large quantities of plutonium,” said Gary Samore, an expert on nuclear proliferation and a former member of US President Barack Obama’s national security staff.

“I think it is much easier for the Iranians to compromise on a research reactor than it is for them to compromise on the enrichment program,” Samore told Reuters, referring to Iran’s existing, and much larger, operations to refine uranium.

The current round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 is being held amid the Crimean crisis, which some fear may lead to a breakdown on consensus between Russia and the western states.

However, early reports on Tuesday said that the Iranian delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, had described the first meeting as “constructive.”

This was echoed by Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who leads the P5+1 delegation.

“I haven’t seen any negative effect,” he told reporters. “We continue our work in a unified fashion.”

Hermidas Bavand, an Iranian commentator, told Asharq Al-Awsat that this round of negotiations is geared towards setting out a detailed road map to reach the final deal, although “no big breakthrough is . . . expected at this stage.”

It would not be in the interest of any of the various parties to bring up the issue of the current crisis between Russia and the West over Crimea, he added.

However, fears remain that Russia’s stated intention to annex Crimea, and Moscow’s approach to continued instability in Ukraine, may undermine talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

Russia has in the past taken a softer line on Iran’s nuclear program, in contrast with American insistence on tough sanctions and measures to ensure Iran cannot obtain any capability to divert its civil nuclear program towards a bomb.

While both Russia and China joined Western powers in adopting a number of UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning Iran between 2006 and 2010 when then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was pushing hard to advance Iran’s nuclear capabilities, both countries have condemned sanctions imposed by the US and EU on Iran’s oil exports and central bank.

Within Iran, some sections of the media have reported demands in conservative circles that talks between Zarif and Ashton be canceled due to what they branded as “undiplomatic behavior” by Ashton, who met with a number of human right activists during her recent visit to Iran. Ashton’s meetings have caused uproar among some Iranian conservatives, leading to calls from a number of right-wing MPs for Zarif’s impeachment.