Iran and six world powers achieved little in two days of intense nuclear talks in Baghdad except arranging another meeting in Moscow next month and establishing they are poles apart on crucial issues.
The latest diplomatic push between Iran and the P5+1 — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — at one stage even looked unlikely to take place until desperate eleventh-hour efforts managed to salvage the process — for now.
“We remain determined to resolve this problem in the near term through negotiations, and will continue to make every effort to that end,” Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, said after two “very intense” days of talks.
“What we have now is some common ground and a meeting in place where we can take that further forward,” she said, announcing the next round would take place in Moscow on June 18-19.
She added however that there remained “significant differences” and that Iran must take “concrete and practical steps to urgently meet the concerns of the international community.”
The main bone of contention was — and will remain in Moscow — the speed at which the P5+1 eases sanctions in return for the Islamic republic scaling back the most sensitive parts of its nuclear programme.
Ashton put forward in the Iraqi capital on behalf of the six powers a new package of proposals that clearly went down badly with the Iranians.
The P5+1 want Iran to restrict to purities of 20 percent the enrichment of uranium, the area of Iran’s activities that most raises their suspicions that Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear arsenal.
In return reports indicated the international powers are prepared to offer a variety of sweeteners, including fuel plates for a reactor producing medical isotopes, relaxing restrictions on aircraft parts and nuclear safety assistance.
But this falls short of the lifting of the whole raft of UN Security Council and unilateral Western sanctions that have been hit Iran’s economy for years.
Reflecting official thinking in Tehran, state media ran reports slammed the package, with the IRNA news agency calling it as “outdated, not comprehensive, and unbalanced.”
Iran meanwhile is loath to give up what its chief negotiator in Baghdad, Saeed Jalili called its “absolute right” to uranium enrichment.
In the end, with the Baghdad talks extended several times — they were originally only meant to last one day — the two sides agreed to differ, setting the stage for what may be a make-or-break gathering in the Russian capital.
Neither side can afford to keep the process going indefinitely without some tangible progress.
Iran is threatened with an EU oil embargo, due to take full effect from July 1, that will also bar EU firms from insuring crude tankers heading to countries such as India, South Korea and Japan, all major buyers of Iran’s oil.
Israel, which is widely considered to have the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear arsenal, sees itself as Tehran’s number-one target if Iran acquires the bomb and is highly sceptical that diplomacy will work.
Like the United States, it has refused to rule out military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent it developing a weapons capability.
Oil prices have risen higher as a result, hurting global growth just as the eurozone crisis threatens to return with a vengeance and as US President Barack Obama seeks re-election in November on the back of an improving economy.
Obama, who campaigned in 2008 for his first term promising to reach out to Tehran, is also wary of his Iran policy being branded as soft and a failure by his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
“A freeze on new sanctions in exchange for a freeze on new enrichment activity is still possible,” Mark Fitzpatrick at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank in London told AFP.
“The danger is that if they drag on too long, diplomacy will be seen to have failed by many in Israel and elsewhere, which will bring renewed talk of a military option.”