International negotiators have urged Iran to end its uranium enrichment program in return for easing sanctions. While German Foreign Minister Westerwelle is optimistic, Iran has indicated little readiness to give in.
The five permanent UN Security Council members - the so-called P5+1, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France - are reportedly suggesting a relief of sanctions in exchange for concessions to cut back Iran's uranium enrichment program at the plant in Fordow, close to Qom.
This would include resuming trade in gold and other precious metals, as well some international banking activity.
"We have come here with a revised offer and we have come to engage with Iran in a meaningful way," said EU policy chief Catherine Ashton said. "We've put some proposals forward which will hopefully allow Iran to show some flexibility."
Iran insists that its nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes and that it enriches uranium only to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, turning it into fuel for a medical research reactor.
International observers, however, believe the plant can enrich uranium to reach weapons-grade material.
"The offer addresses the international concern on the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program, but it is also responsive to Iranian ideas," Ashton's spokesperson, Michael Mann, told reporters ahead of the talks.
A report last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran was for the first time installing advanced centrifuges that would allow it to significantly speed up its enrichment of uranium for both civilian and military purposes.
The country already has eight nuclear research facilities and power plants, the atomic power plant in the southern city of Bushehr (pictured above), was built in 2010 with Russian help.
"We will not accept anything beyond our obligations and will not accept anything less than our rights," said Iran's negotiator Saeed Jalili before setting off for Kazakhstan.
Iranian state television, meanwhile reported, that Iran would put forward a "comprehensive package of proposals" but gave no details and stressed that the proposals may change depending on the offers from the P5+1 group of nations, which is headed by the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.
Tehran has been defiant in the face of Western sanctions dramatically reducing its oil and other exports, the currency has lost in value and pushed up inflation in the country.
The talks in the Kazakh capital Almaty come after eight months of silence following three inconclusive meetings last year in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov expressed hope that the talks would now move into a new phase of "bargaining."
But ahead of June's presidential election in Iran, political observers see in-fighting in the Islamic Republic and are skeptical that any ground-breaking admissions will be made.
Choosing Almaty as the venue for the talks was intended as a symbol: Kazakhstan gave up its nuclear arsenal after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
A US official said the Central Asian state could now serve as a "good role model."
rg/kms (AFP, Reuters)