The latest round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 held in the Kazakh capital of Almaty on April 5-6 is said to have been the frankest and most detailed so far. For the very first time, the talks included a direct US-Iranian exchange of some 30 to 40 minutes — between Wendy Sherman, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, and Dr Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and Secretary of its Supreme National Security Council. Sherman is reported to have asked Jalili a series of specific questions to which he is said to have responded in considerable detail.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief, who chaired the P5+1 group of delegates — from Britain, China, France, Russia, the US plus Germany — admitted the two sides remained far apart “on the substance” of the negotiations, but she was by no means gloomy or dismissive. The participants, she said, would now “go back to [their] capitals to evaluate where we stand in the process.” She would be in touch with Jalili — in a matter of “days, not months — to see if the gap could be narrowed and how to go forward”.

For its part, Iran was said to be eager to schedule a new meeting, but, given the considerable differences between the two sides, the P5+1 said they wanted to avoid “talks for talks’ sake”.

If one were to listen to Catherine Ashton, the outlook for a deal with Iran would seem reasonably hopeful. But is this a true picture? It is by no means clear whether Washington truly wants a deal with Iran or whether its covert aim is to bring down the Islamic Republic. Certainly, this is Iran’s profound suspicion, which is not surprising. Just as many people in the US suspect that Iran is spinning out the talks to gain time for its covert nuclear programme, so a great many Iranians believe the US is not negotiating in good faith. They suspect the US is using the pretext of Iran’s nuclear programme to impose ever more crippling sanctions on it with the aim of bringing down the Islamic regime.

Ashton is patently well-intentioned. She seems to have managed to dispel some of Iran’s darkest suspicions. Breaking with the US tendency to portray Iran as a sinister adversary, she has made a real effort to befriend Jalili, to understand his concerns and break with the language of condemnation and threat too often adopted by US officials and commentators. It is by no means clear, however, whether the US shares her positive approach.

For one thing, Israel, which exerts considerable influence over America’s Middle East policy, wants to close down Iran’s nuclear industry altogether and makes no secret of its readiness to use force to achieve this aim. It is totally opposed to any compromise which will allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium. Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs, has been quick to dismiss the talks as a failure. Steinitz — and, behind him, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — have pressed the US to set a red line for Iran, insisting that it totally abandon its civilian nuclear programme.

US President Barack Obama has adopted a cooler tone, arguing that it will take at least a year, if not longer, for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. However, it is by no means clear how far he can depart from Israel’s more pressing agenda. In the circumstances, the negotiations behind the scenes between the US and Israel may well be as important as those between Iran and the P5+1 — if not more so.

Iran has always insisted on international recognition of its “right” to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes on its home soil. From the start, this has been its position of principle. “What we are insisting on is our right to enrich,” Jalili told the press. “This is equally true for 5 per cent or 20 per cent. You know well that 20 per cent enriched uranium is used for medical purposes. One million Iranian patients are using those isotopes ... Today, the fuel is exclusively used for humanitarian matters, medical purposes, exclusively peaceful purposes.” Jalili explained that Iran’s proposals required recognising “our right to enrich and ending behaviours which have every indication of enmity towards the Iranian people ... In consideration of our new proposals, it is now up to the P5+1 to demonstrate its willingness and sincerity to take appropriate confidence-building steps in the future”.

Nevertheless, at Almaty, the Iranian delegation showed some flexibility in suggesting that, as a “confidence-building” measure, Iran may be prepared to freeze production of some of its enriched uranium if, in return, the West were to lift its economic sanctions. Iran, however, seems unlikely to agree to close its enrichment plant at Fordo, buried deep in a mountain, unless its legal right to nuclear power under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is acknowledged.

Does this indicate that Iran and the P5+1 are at a dangerous stalemate? It is to be hoped that the departure from office next June of Iran’s pugnacious President Ahmadinejad will ease the way to an international agreement, which will spare the region the horrors of war.

The writer is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs. This article has been reproduced from the Gulf News.