The latest meeting between Iran and world powers to try and resolve the dilemma over the Iranian nuclear programme is over. And once again, a shaft of light has emerged that will lead some to hope that military action over the Iranian programme might be averted.

After two days of talks in the freezing city of Almaty in Kazakhstan, Iran has told the US and five other world powers that it is prepared to hold a couple more meetings in March and April to try to resolve international concerns that it wants a nuclear bomb.

That said, few will want to overplay the significance of this move. Here are three reasons why many western diplomats will be cautious.

  1. Does more meetings just mean stalling for time? In Geneva in 2009 and in Istanbul last April, Iran made similar declarations, giving the green light for further talks on confidence-building measures that went nowhere. So most diplomats will be pretty neutral about Iran agreeing to follow-on talks again. Plenty will worry instead that Iran is stalling for time while it develops its nuclear programme on the ground.
  2. It was the six world powers that came up with the compromises at Almaty – not Iran. At meetings last year, the six asked Iran to agree to a list of concessions – namely, to stop further production of highly enriched 20 per cent uranium; to shut its Fordow enrichment plant; and to ship its existing 20 per cent stockpile out of the country. In return for all this, the six offered some specific economic help but no sanctions relief at all. This time, the international powers said for the first time that in return for these concessions, they would peel back sanctions – on the trade in gold and petrochemicals. Indeed, the six no longer seek complete closure of Fordow, just a commitment to “reduce the readiness” of the plant.
  3. Iran is steadily building up nuclear capability on the ground. The International Atomic Energy agency reported last week that Iran is installing new IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz at a faster-than-expected rate. This could allow it to make a faster final sprint to a bomb than had been thought. Iran is also pressing ahead with construction of its IR-40 Arak reactor, which could give it a plutonium-based pathway to a weapon.

The outcome, therefore, is mixed. The good news is that a chance for a deal to avert military action has again opened up. The bad news is that the timescale within which that deal must be reached – if this epic diplomatic stand-off is not to end in war – has shortened.

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