A tense first day of talks between Iran and six world powers in Moscow made little progress Monday on how to end a decade-long dispute over Tehran's nuclear program.
Diplomats said the Islamic Republic asked the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany to discuss rolling back tough European Union and U.S. sanctions due to take effect in two weeks. The measures would further isolate Tehran from world oil and banking markets.
In return, Iran has said it would stop enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, a level much higher than what is needed for power generation and what experts see as a short step from weapons-grade material.
But the six world powers did not grant any such assurances. Catherine Ashton, the EU's top foreign policy official, who is leading the negotiations, called Monday's talks “intense and tough.”
Her spokesman, Michael Mann, said Iran presented arguments and objections already covered in two previous inconclusive meetings earlier this year. He said the world powers would not offer to delay or waive sanctions unless Iran suspended all its enrichment-related activities.
Experts said a breakthrough was unlikely. The two sides have made little progress since an April meeting that ended a 15-month break in negotiations.
The Islamic Republic has previously mentioned lifting sanctions or staying pending ones, but one diplomat said Monday's request to do so was the most direct to date. That appeared to reflect the mounting pain caused by the accumulating measures, particularly international embargoes on Iran's oil sales.
A first round of U.S.-led sanctions has cut Iran's oil imports nearly in half this year. Next, on July 1, European sanctions are to further slash Iran's oil revenue. EU countries will be banned from buying Iranian oil, and EU companies will be barred from insuring Iran oil cargoes.
New U.S. financial sanctions take effect some days before that.
In addition to halting enrichment, the six-nation group has also called for Iran to remove stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium from its territory and shut down an underground facility at Fordo that has been producing the material.
In return, the world powers have offered to send Iran nuclear fuel for its medical research reactor and badly-needed spare parts for its aviation industry. Iranian leaders have dismissed such offers in the past as insufficient.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Monday his government would be willing to stop 20 percent enrichment if the six powers agreed to supply the fuel needed for a Tehran reactor making medical isotopes. But it is not clear how much influence Mr. Ahmadinejad has over the negotiations.
Iran says its enrichment work is for peaceful uses including electricity generation and medical research. But Israel and Western powers accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian energy program.
An Iranian delegate in Moscow said the talks will fail if the world powers do not recognize what Tehran sees as its right to enrich uranium. The current round of negotiations talks are scheduled to end Tuesday.
Russia hopes the new talks will achieve enough progress to lead to more negotiations and prevent a diplomatic failure that could lead to foreign military intervention in Iran, a longtime economic partner of Moscow.
Israel sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence and has hinted it could strike Iranian nuclear sites within months to remove the danger. World powers have expressed concern that an escalation of the dispute into a regional war would trigger a jump in oil prices and depress the fragile global economy.