* Iran nuclear talks begin after eight-month break
* Sanctions relief on offer if Iran halts atomic work
* Iranian election weighs on possible outcome
(Adds details of first day of talks)
By Yeganeh Torbati and Justyna Pawlak
ALMATY, Feb 26 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
The talks in Kazakhstan were the first in eight months
between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security
Council plus Germany - the "P5+1" - on a decade-old dispute that
threatens to trigger another war in the Middle East.
Iran has used the time since the last meeting in June to
further expand activity that the West suspects is aimed at
enabling it to build a nuclear bomb, something that Israel has
suggested it will prevent by force if diplomacy fails.
The two-day negotiations in the city of Almaty follow
inconclusive meetings last year in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow.
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 centre 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.
With the Islamic Republic's political elite preoccupied with
worsening infighting before a presidential election in June, few
believe the meeting will yield a quick breakthrough.
"It is clear that nobody expects to come from Almaty with a
fully done deal," the EU spokesman, Michael Mann, said before
the meeting started.
A U.S. official said that the offer - an updated version of
one rejected by Tehran last year - would take into account its
recent nuclear advances, but also take "some steps in the
For years, the powers had attempted a mix of economic
pressure and diplomacy to persuade Iran to scale back its atomic
work, but Tehran has insisted that sanctions are lifted before
it complies with any demands.
In Almaty, a source close to the Iranian negotiators told
reporters: "Depending on what proposal we receive from the other
side we will present our own proposal of the same weight. The
continuation of talks depends on how this exchange of proposals
At best, diplomats and analysts say, Iran will take the
joint offer from the United States, Russia, France, Germany,
Britain and China seriously and agree to hold further talks soon
on practical steps to ease the tension. Initial meetings could
involve only technical experts, who cannot strike deals.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Berlin that he
hoped Iran "will make its choice to move down the path of a
But Iran, whose chief negotiator Saeed Jalili is close to
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and is a veteran of Iran's
1980s war against Iraq and the Western powers that backed it,
has shown no sign of willingness to scale back its nuclear work.
It says it has a sovereign right to carry out nuclear
enrichment for peaceful energy purposes, and in particular
refuses to close the underground Fordow enrichment plant, a
condition the powers have set for any sanctions relief.
A U.N. nuclear watchdog report last week said Iran was for
the first time installing advanced centrifuges that would allow
it to significantly speed up its enrichment of uranium, which
can have both civilian and military purposes.
Accelerating Western sanctions on Iran over the last 14
months are hurting Iran's economy and slashing oil revenue. Its
currency has more than halved in value, which in turn has pushed
The central bank governor was quoted on Monday as saying
Iran's inflation was likely to top 30 percent in coming weeks as
the sanctions contribute to shortages and stockpiling.
Iranians say inflation is already much higher
than that official figure.
But analysts say the sanctions are not close to having the
crippling effect envisaged by Washington and - so far at least -
they have not prompted a change in Iran's nuclear course.
Western officials said the powers' offer would include an
easing of restrictions on trade in gold and other precious
metals if Tehran closes Fordow.
The facility is used for enriching uranium to 20 percent
fissile purity, a short technical step from weapons grade.
Western officials acknowledge an easing of U.S. and EU
sanctions on trade in gold represents a relatively modest step.
But the metal could be used as part of barter transactions that
might allow Iran to circumvent financial sanctions.
Iran's foreign ministry spokesman last week dismissed the
reported incentive as insufficient and a senior Iranian lawmaker
has ruled out closing Fordow, close to the holy city of Qom.
(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Almaty, Zahra
Hosseinian in Zurich, Arshad Mohammed and Stephen Brown in
Berlin; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)