ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Two days of talks between six world powers and Iran over its nuclear program ended Wednesday with specific agreement for further meetings in March and April over a proposal that would sharply constrain Iran's stockpile of the most dangerous enriched uranium, in return for a modest lifting of some sanctions.
But the six powers dropped their demand that Iran shut down its enrichment plant at Fordo, built deep into a mountain, instead insisting that Iran suspend enrichment work there and agree to unspecified conditions that would make it hard to quickly resume it. The six also agreed, in another apparent softening, that Iran could produce and keep a small amount of 20 percent enriched uranium for use in a reactor to produce medical isotopes.
The two sides agreed that technical experts would meet to discuss the proposal March 18 and 19 in Istanbul, while the negotiations at this higher political level will resume April 5 and 6, again in Almaty.
The chief Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, called this meeting positive, asserting that the six powers, representing the permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany, had offered a revised proposal that was "more realistic" and "closer to the Iranian position." Mr. Jalili, whose news conference was notably short of the aggressive rhetoric he has used in the past, called the meeting "a turning point."
But senior Western diplomats were less enthusiastic, saying Iran had not, in fact, responded to the proposal of the six, and that real bargaining had not yet begun. A senior U.S. official described the meeting as "useful" -- refusing to call it positive -- and emphasized that it was "concrete results" that counted, not atmospherics.
A senior European diplomat was even more skeptical, saying the technical meeting was essentially to explain the proposal to the Iranians once again, and that Iran may very well come back in April with an unacceptable counterproposal that swallows the "carrots" of the six and demands more.
The senior U.S. official said that, as a first step toward confidence-building and reducing the urgency around the issue, the six were demanding that Iran "significantly restrict" its accumulation of uranium enriched to 20 percent -- which can quickly be turned into bomb-grade material -- and limit its production to what is needed for fuel for the small Tehran Research Reactor to make medical isotopes. Iran must also "suspend enrichment at Fordo," a plant deep inside a mountain and very difficult to attack from the air, and accept conditions that "constrain the ability to quickly resume enrichment there," the official said.
Third, Iran must allow more regular and thorough access to monitoring from the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that it keeps its promises and cannot suddenly "break out" quickly to create a nuclear warhead, so there is "early warning of any attempt to rapidly or secretly abandon agreed limits and produce weapons-grade uranium," the official said.
In return, the official said, the six would suspend some sanctions, but not those involving oil or financial transactions, which are the harshest, and would promise not to vote new sanctions through the U.N. Security Council or the European Union.
The proposal is a slightly softer modification of the proposal the six made eight months ago in Moscow. There, it was described as "stop, shut, ship" -- demanding that Iran stop enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, shut the Fordo facility and ship abroad its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to be turned into nuclear fuel.
The new offer demands suspension of enrichment to 20 percent, suspension of work at Fordo with unspecified conditions to make it difficult to renew enrichment there, and acceptance of Iran's producing and keeping a small amount of 20 percent enriched uranium for medical isotopes. The official denied that there was any "softening of our position," citing further constraints on Iran, but conceded that Iran was being offered some more sanctions relief in response to its concerns and in an effort "to gain traction for these talks."