ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — Iran and world powers trying to curb Iran's nuclear progress are coming to the negotiating table this week with the window shrinking on diplomacy. Tehran is moving closer to the ability to make atomic arms, and that risks the threat of Mideast conflict.
Israel says the Islamic Republic is only a few months away from the threshold of having material to turn into a bomb and has vowed to use all means to prevent it from reaching it. The United States has not said what its "red line" is, but has said it will not tolerate an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.
Any strike on Iran would provoke fierce retaliation directly from Iran and through its Middle East proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, raising the specter of a larger Middle East conflict. The stakes are thus clearly high for negotiators of six nations meeting their Iranian counterparts in Almaty Friday.
While not threatening force, the United States and Israel both warned Iran ahead of that meeting that they would not allow it to acquire nuclear arms.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran is a model of a country "talking but at the same time developing nuclear weapons."
"I think that model certainly can't be allowed to happen in the case of Iran," said Netanyahu Wednesday after meeting with Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Eide.
In Washington, a senior U.S. administration official urged Tehran to meet demands from the six powers that it scale back on uranium enrichment — a potential path to nuclear weapons — citing President Barack Obama as saying that "all options remain on the table" to prevent Iran from having such arms. The official demanded anonymity as a condition for speaking on the issue.
The six — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — hope the talks will result in at least an incremental advance in a decade of efforts to reduce Iran's bomb-making capacities by curbing its uranium enrichment program.
The two sides parted in February after meeting in Almaty with agreement to at least keep talking over a new proposal submitted by the six. But they remain vastly divided on what they want from each other.
Iran wants an end to punishing sanctions crippling its economy imposed to force it end uranium enrichment, a process that can generate both nuclear energy and the core of nuclear weapons. Iran denies any interest in atomic arms, insists its enrichment program serves only peaceful needs, says it has a right to enrich under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and describes U.N. Security Council demands to stop Iranian enrichment as illegal.
"We are talking about peaceful nuclear energy," Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, said before the latest talks. He said Iran had a right to such a program and accused "a handful of countries" of working " to deny this right to others."
The six have moved from demanding a total end to enrichment. As a first step, they now are asking Tehran only to stop production and stockpiling of uranium enriched to 20 percent, which is just a technical step away from weapons-grade uranium. A halt to production and stockpiling would keep Iran's supply below the amount needed for further processing into a weapon.
Starting a few months ago, Tehran began keeping a ceiling on its higher-enriched uranium stockpile below the amount it would need to produce bomb-grade material by turning some into a form unusable for weapons and holding off on activating more enriching centrifuges.
Neither Iran nor the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose experts monitor Iran's atomic program, have confirmed that Tehran is continuing to limit its higher-enriched uranium stockpile. But IAEA chief Yukiya Amano told The Associated Press this week he "has no particular indications" to believe otherwise.
While the six are dangling some sanctions relief, they are not offering to lift sanctions on Iranian oil exports and other punitive measures. The offer is not enough for Iran, so at best, the negotiations will end Saturday with an agreement that enough progress was made to talk again later.
Deep-seated Iranian suspicions of U.S. motives adds to the hurdles at the Almaty talks, said Belfer Center nonproliferation expert Gary Samore, alluding to Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Samore, President Barack Obama's coordinator for weapons of mass destruction until January, said Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, "strongly suspects that the U.S. is using the nuclear issue to ultimately overthrow the (Iranian) regime."
Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said "the two sides are just too far apart."
"At best they may narrow their differences," said Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. administration official.
Even an agreement to keep talking would give both sides short-term gains.
It would leave the international community with some breathing space in its efforts to stem Iran's nuclear advance. For Tehran, continued negotiations are insurance that neither Israel nor the United States will feel the need to act on threats of action.
AP writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran and Joe Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.