Six world powers and Iran met for a second day on Saturday with scant hope of striking a breakthrough deal to ease concern that Tehran may be trying to develop nuclear weapons capability, a dispute that could escalate into a new Middle East war.
Negotiators failed to narrow their differences when the two-day meeting began on Friday, which followed a round of talks in February, also in Kazakhstan’s commercial hub, Almaty.
The final day of negotiations was unlikely to achieve more than a willingness to keep talking. Iran responded on Friday to an offer of limited relief from sanctions with a proposal of its own that puzzled Western diplomats and which Russia said raised more questions than answers.
Iran’s critics accuse it of covertly seeking the means to make nuclear bombs and say Tehran in the past has used diplomacy as a stalling tactic. Further inconclusive talks will not reassure Israel, which says it could launch air strikes to stop its arch-enemy from getting the bomb, if necessary.
The Jewish state is widely believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal.
With all sides aware that a breakdown in diplomacy could move the stand-off a step closer to war, no one in Almaty was talking about abandoning diplomatic efforts. But an actual deal seemed as far away as ever.
“We had a substantive exchange. But there is still a wide gulf between the parties. We are considering how we move on from here,” said one Western diplomat after Friday’s discussions.
On Saturday morning, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton - the six world powers’ lead negotiator - held a bilateral meeting with her Iranian counterpart.
Iranian state television said Iranian officials also conducted very “fruitful” bilateral meetings with the Chinese and Russian delegations before the wider negotiations resumed at around noon (0600 GMT), but it gave no details.
Beijing and Moscow - which both have commercial ties with Tehran - have backed U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions imposed on the Islamic state since 2006 but have criticised separate, harsher Western punitive steps against the big oil producer.
The talks between Iran and the powers later adjourned for lunch before resuming around 4.30 p.m. (1030 GMT), the semi-official Iranian news agency Fars said.