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Today, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Iran and six world powers including the U.S. wrapped up two days of talks. No breakthroughs, but Iran is considering a proposal that would impose new restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for the easing of some economic sanctions. The two sides will return to Kazakhstan for another meeting in early April. NPR's Peter Kenyon has this report from the scene of the negotiations.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The Almaty talks were not expected to resolve the issues at the heart of this nuclear controversy but to try to set the stage for serious bargaining to come. Lead international negotiator Catherine Ashton refused to discuss the latest offer, saying Iran needs time to study it and prepare a response.
CATHERINE ASHTON: We'll have to see what happens next, but we approach this with absolutely united view that we need to see the progress that's necessary. And I hope that when we meet again, we will have seen that Iran has picked up these proposals and is pushing to make that progress with us.
KENYON: For his part, Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili called the talks positive, saying perhaps the international side realizes that the continuing pressure and sanctions since the last round of talks in Moscow had proved fruitless.
SAEED JALILI: (Foreign language spoken)
KENYON: Now, after eight months, they're coming closer to our position. This, we see as positive, said Jalili, adding, if this is a change in strategy, then we believe this may be a turning point. The hard bargaining, however, is yet to come. A senior U.S. official says one thing is clear: While this proposal does offer some relief from economic sanctions, it does not touch the most punishing restrictions, the ones on the oil and gas and financial sectors. The official adds that what is being asked in return from Iran is substantial, including a demand to significantly restrict its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium.
That's the West's most immediate concern because it can be enhanced to weapons grade with relative ease. The official says Iran would be allowed to produce enough 20 percent enforced uranium for a research reactor in Tehran, whether that draws a positive response from Tehran remains to be seen. Jalili insisted on Iran's nuclear rights, but he appeared to leave the door open to compromise on the 20 percent issue.
JALILI: (Foreign language spoken)
KENYON: Enrichment is our right, whether to 20 percent or 5 percent, he said, but on this issue, we could have some cooperation in order to build confidence. The proposal also calls on Iran to suspend enrichment of uranium at its underground facility at Fordow, and the U.S. official said there would be constraints on Iran's ability to restart enforcement there. Iran's Saeed Jalili avoided the issue, saying only that Fordow is a legal site known to U.N. inspectors, and the other side hadn't asked to close it.
Secretary of State John Kerry says the Almaty talks could be useful if Iran engages seriously. Longtime followers of these talks find that phrase all too familiar. Iran expert Shahram Chubin with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says it's quite possible that much of Iran's tough talk is meant for domestic consumption, especially with a presidential election coming up in June. But speaking by phone from Geneva, Chubin says he's concerned that Tehran is misjudging the seriousness of its position.
SHAHRAM CHUBIN: That's where I'm really worried because I don't think the Iranians believe the military option. I think that the more you make threats and don't execute them, which has been happening over the last decade, the more you encourage the hard-liners to tough it out. They don't believe in the military pressure.
KENYON: The bottom line with Iran, though, in Chubin's view is that everything is a negotiation, and the real measure of how these Almaty talks went will come in April when Iran gives its response. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Almaty, Kazakhstan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.