World powers and Iran failed again to ease their decade-old dispute over Tehran's disputed nuclear programme in talks that ended yesterday, prolonging a stand-off that risks spiralling into a new Middle East war.
The lack of a breakthrough in the two-day meeting in Kazakhstan aimed at easing international concern over Iran's contested nuclear activity marked a further setback for diplomatic efforts to resolve the row peacefully.
It is also likely to strengthen suspicions in Israel – which threatens air strikes to stop its arch-enemy from getting the bomb – that Iran is using diplomacy as a stalling tactic.
"Over two days of talks, we had long and intensive discussions," European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said. "It became clear that our positions remain far apart," Ms Ashton, who represents the six powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – in dealings with Iran, told a news conference.
Underlining the lack of substantial progress during the negotiations in the Kazakh commercial centre of Almaty – the second meeting there this year – no new talks between the two sides were scheduled.
But a senior US official said there had been no breakdown in the negotiations with Iran. "There was no breakthrough but also no breakdown," the official said. "Our intention is to proceed," he said, referring to a US commitment to further diplomatic efforts.
Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili acknowledged differences between the two sides. "We proposed our plan of action and the other party was not ready and they asked for some time to study the idea," he told a separate news conference.
Russia's negotiator sounded more upbeat, saying the talks were a "step forward" although no compromise had been reached.
But Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov added that it was premature to name a date and venue for further talks.
Iran's critics accuse it of covertly seeking the means to produce nuclear bombs. Israel, widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, sees Iran's nuclear programme as a potential threat to its existence.
Iran says its nuclear energy programme is entirely peaceful but UN inspectors suspect it has worked illicitly on designing a nuclear weapon.