Hopeful exchange: Talks on Iran's nuclear program take a new tone

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Two days of talks in Kazakhstan between Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany produced no concrete results on the Iran nuclear issue, but did permit both sides to put potentially useful proposals on the table which neither side pushed back.

Two more rounds of discussion are scheduled, the first in Istanbul, Turkey, after the sides have had the opportunity to digest the other's bids, a mildly positive development. The parties had not met since June, in Moscow.

Present in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Tuesday and Wednesday were representatives of the "P5 plus one" -- China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States plus Germany. Iran sent Saeed Jalili, who was billed as the personal representative of its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The meeting followed a period during which the international side had increased pressure on Iran through new economic sanctions. These had wreaked a certain amount of damage on the Iranian economy, including inflation, exchange rate plunges for Iranian currency and consumer shortages, reflecting overall greater Iranian difficulty in marketing its critical petroleum exports.

The Iranians had cheered themselves up between meetings by announcing the installation of new equipment permitting faster enrichment of nuclear fuel, the discovery in Iran of new deposits of raw uranium and the identification of 16 new sites for the construction of nuclear power stations. They continue to claim that their program has as its sole goal increasing its nuclear energy capacity, not building nuclear weapons.

The West reportedly offered Iran some sanctions relief in return for modifications away from weapons-related production.

Significant Iranian concessions are considered unlikely prior to the country's presidential and municipal elections scheduled for June 14. Nonetheless, both sides appeared to have gone to Almaty with a reasonably positive approach in hand. The end of Israeli sabre-rattling against Iran in its election campaign and a softening of President Barack Obama's policy rigidity, perhaps due to his own reelection, may have increased Western negotiating flexibility.

Whatever the reason, it is encouraging to see both sides in the negotiations seriously considering the other's ideas, rather than just hurling threatening rhetoric at each other.

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