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Ashton has asked Iran to hold a round of talks this month and on Friday called on Tehran to abandon plans to install and operate advanced centrifuges that would speed up its ability to enrich uranium - potentially making it easier for it to produce the highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons.
Many believe no deal is possible without a U.S.-Iranian thaw, requiring direct talks addressing myriad sources of mutual mistrust and hostility lingering since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
Iran has avoided direct, public talks with the United States, though some suggest Tehran would eventually welcome an opportunity to end its international isolation.
“DECISIVE YEAR ON IRAN”
With Iran holding its own presidential elections in June, hopes of progress before then are limited.
The United States and its allies, however, do not have an indefinite amount of time to negotiate. Notwithstanding the current stalemate, Iran’s nuclear programme is advancing and an international consensus on sanctions may be hard to maintain.
Israel, which describes the prospect of Iran being able to weaponise enriched uranium as an existential threat, has made clear it would be ready to bomb the nuclear sites of its arch-enemy to prevent that outcome. The United States has also said it would not rule out the use of military force.
Speaking at the Munich conference, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that “2013 is the decisive year on Iran, especially for political reasons.
“We had elections in the United States and Israel, we will have elections in June in Iran; we see increasing capabilities especially with the issue of enrichment - let us be very frank, we did not have progress in the last 12 months, so it is obvious that we have to use this year..”
Russia, which has been impatient with decades of U.S. hostility to Tehran since its 1979 Islamic Revolution but backed U.N. Security Council sanctions since 2006, repeated on Saturday the need to find a diplomatic solution.
“Iran must know the overall game plan, it must see what is in it for it in this process. We need to convince Iran that this is not about regime change … this mistrust must be overcome,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the conference.
That comment was echoed by Westerwelle.
“If we want to reach this goal, it would be wrong to discuss all these military options and possibilities. It is now important to focus our whole attention, all our effort for a diplomatic and political solution.”
This would have to include a relief from sanctions as well as recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium to the lower levels needed for civilian nuclear fuel, security analysts say. (Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson in Munich; Editing by Mark Heinrich)