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Iran Live Coverage: Today's Nuclear Talks in Kazakhstan

Catherine Ashton, lead nuclear negotiator for the 5+1 Powers, and Iranian counterpart Saeed Jalili today

See also Monday's Iran Live Coverage: Ahmadinejad's Advisor Mortazavi Faces Trial

2138 GMT: Sanctions Watch. Officials, showing corroborating documents, claim Iran is using old tankers --- saved from the scrapyard by foreign middlemen --- to ship oil to China and avoid Western sanctions.

Eight very large crude carriers (VLCCs), each of which can carry close to a day's worth of Tehran's exports, have loaded Iranian oil at sea.

The eight tankers, built up to 20 years ago, can carry about 16 million barrels of oil among them, shipping databases show.

1928 GMT: All the President's Men. The indictment against Presidential advisor Saeed Mortazavi and two former judiciary officials --- over the abuse and killing of three post-election protesters in Kahrizak detention centre in summer 2009 --- has been read in court.

Mortazavi is charging with “participating in unlawful detentions” and “assistance in setting up false reports or encouraging such actions in relevant officials”.

The next session in the trial is scheduled for 10 March.

1915 GMT: Engineering the Elections Watch. Ali Akbar Velayati, the Supreme Leader's senior advisor, has said the three-man committee choosing the "unity" candidate for June's Presidential election may select someone outside the trio.

The three-man committee backed by the Supreme Leader is Velayati, Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, and leading MP and Supreme Leader's relative Gholam Ali Haddad Adel.

1905 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Finally, a US-European line on the first day of the nuclear talks emerges, courtesy of Reuters:

Major powers offered Iran limited sanctions relief in return for a halt to the most controversial part of its atomic work during the first day of nuclear talks on Tuesday, and Iran promised to respond with a proposal on the same scale.

Having established that it is the "West" that has taken the initiative by presenting a significant proposal, the diplomats effectively re-state the condition that Iran shut the Fordow plant, producing 20% uranium:

Western diplomats described the first day of talks as "useful" but said Iranian negotiators did not immediately respond to the P5+1's demand that Tehran closes its underground nuclear facility Fordow, at the center of their concerns.

"Hopefully the Iranians will be able to reflect overnight and will come back and view our proposal positively," said a spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton who oversees Iranian diplomacy for the six powers.

1901 GMT: Labour Front. The heads of two official Labour unions, Oulia Ali-Beigi and Gholamreza Khademizadeh, have said that workers have lost confidence in the unions and do not pay subscriptions anymore.

1842 GMT: (Non-)Nuclear Watch. Still not a flutter of significant information out of the talks in Kazakhstan, so State outlet Press TV headlines with Cinema News:

The granting of the Best Picture Oscar to the Iranophobic movie Argo has long been foreseeable as the Machiavellian maneuvering of Hollywood propaganda harbors a much more elaborate imperialistic scheme, political analysts say.

Reinhold Baumgartner, reporting for Tagesschau, says that pirated copies of Argo are selling in Tehran for $1.

1552 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Back from an extended academic break --- and just before going into another one --- to find the sum total of developments from today's discussions between Iran and the 5+1 Powers:

1. Western Journalists: The 5+1 offered "some steps in the sanctions arena, perhaps not in the fundamental ways ...that Iran is looking for."

2. Iranian State Media: Iran offered a proposal.

And that's it.

But there is a nice picture of 5+1 Powers negotiator Catherine Ashton --- shoulders covered, for those who are wondering --- and her Iranian counterpart Saeed Jalili (see top of entry).

1132 GMT: Nuclear Watch. This morning's plenary session of 2 1/2 hours in the talks between Iran and the 5+1 Powers ended with no hints of the progress --- or lack of such --- in the discussions.

0907 GMT: Nuclear Watch. While I await news from Kazakhstan, a profile by Reuters' Marcus George of Iran's lead negotiator, Saeed Jalili:

Jalili, 47, lost his right leg in the 1980s, fighting for the elite Revolutionary Guards in a war against Iraq where the survival of Iran's young Shi'ite theocratic revolution was under threat from Saddam Hussein and the Western and Sunni Gulf Arab powers backing Iraq.

"He sees the U.S. and Europe as guilty for supporting Iraq against Iran. When he's sitting down with them, I'm sure his experiences are somewhere in the back of his mind" said Mohammad Marandi, assistant professor at Tehran University.

"Jalili is a tough negotiator and believes strongly in Iran's nuclear program and its sovereign rights. He's not the sort of person to give major concessions."

US-based anlayst Karim Sadjadpour has a different perspective:

The best way to get a promotion in contemporary Iranian politics is to be obsequious to the Supreme Leader. Jalili is a classic apparatchik who is willing to follow orders.

0520 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Iran and the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China) will meet today in the Kazakh capital Almaty, their first high-level discussions since last June.

I do not expect any advance in the dispute over Tehran's nuclear programme. The Iranians have made it clear that they must have significant relief of sanctions in return for a move away from enrichment of 20% uranium. The US and the "European 3" of British,  France, and Germany have pointed to no more than the removal of a ban on transfer of gold and precious metals to Iran, imposed less than three weeks ago.

My prediction was reinforced last night by the message fed to Laura Rozen of Al Monitor, who is in Kazakhstan, by unnamed Western officials:

Western diplomats said Monday they will put an updated proposal with some sanctions relief on the table when they meet with Iranian negotiators in Kazakhstan Tuesday for the first time in almost eight months.

They also stressed that they are hoping to get some momentum for a higher tempo of meetings with the Iranians in the coming months, possibly to be held at the technical experts level, in order to try to advance prospects for a deal (or assess Iran’s willingness to make a deal). Notably, diplomats signaled they would offer the Iranians a “clear pathway” to further sanctions relief and a civilian nuclear program, hinting at possible recognition of what Iran considers its right to enrich at the end of a step by step process.

“The real message is for Iran to appreciate there is a path forward for them to get the relief they are seeking and have a peaceful nuclear [energy] program,” a senior US official told journalists in Almaty Monday.

“What we will try to do here is put a modified proposal on the table, that both takes into account changes in Iran’s [nuclear] program, and is responsive to Iran’s desire for the P5+1 to recognize Iran’s needs,” the US diplomat said.

The modified international proposal is a “real, serious, and substantive” offer, the American official said. “We are trying to outline a pathway for sanctions relief. The President has been clear if Iran keeps all its obligations… under the NPT and IAEA….there is absolutely a pathway for it to have peaceful nuclear power.”

Despite Al Monitor and the anonymous sources bigging up the possibilities, a "pathway" is not a "real, serious, and substantive" change in the situation --- unless that pathway has a clear marker, such as the lifting of last July's European Union sanctions on Iran's energy and financial sectors.

Instead, the "real, serious, and substantive" message is the reference to "a higher tempo of meetings with the Iranians in the coming months". The officials held out the prospect of follow-up technical discussions before the Iranian New Year in late March.

In fact, the likelihood --- given Iran's imminent preoccupation with June's Presidential elections --- is that Kazakhstan is a "holding" meeting for another high-level discussion in the autumn.

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