Guarded hopes for deal at Iran nuclear talks
A fresh round of talks between Iran and world powers kicked off Thursday with a push for Tehran to freeze its disputed nuclear programme in exchange for some relief from sanctions.
Officials have said that a long-awaited deal on curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions may be finally within reach, after years of fruitless talks were given fresh momentum by the election of Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani, seen as a relative moderate.
In their second meeting in Geneva in less than a month, negotiators from the United States and five other global powers sat down with Iranian officials for two days of talks aimed at hammering out an agreement.
Chaired by Catherine Ashton -- the EU diplomatic chief who heads the so-called P5+1 group of Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany -- the initial talks ended after 45 minutes but were set to resume later.
"The talks are extremely complex and are now getting into a serious phase," Ashton's spokesman Michael Mann told journalists.
"It was a good opening session... We have agreed with the Iranian side that we will not go into the details, into the substance of what's being discussed in the room," he said.
"But we very much hope of course that there will be concrete progress here over the next couple of days."
In a possible indication the talks were making progress, Iranian officials said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who opened the negotiations with Ashton, had cancelled a trip to Rome.
Iran's lead negotiator in Geneva, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, said in comments shown on Iranian state television that Zarif would be staying in Geneva because talks "have entered a complicated, difficult and intensive" phase.
He said Iranian officials would be meeting separately with European, Russian, Chinese and US officials Thursday before full talks resume in the early evening.
"There are serious differences still remaining but what is important is that both sides have serious will to bridge these differences," Araqchi said.
Both sides have said recent talks have been the most productive in years but admit that reaching a deal will not be easy.
Zarif nonetheless sounded an optimistic note earlier this week, saying he believed it would be "possible" to reach an agreement.
The meeting is the second since Rouhani took office in August pledging to resolve the nuclear dispute and lift sanctions by engaging with world powers.
Israel opposes 'bad deal'
Iran is anxious for relief from crippling economic sanctions that have cut oil revenues in half, caused the value of the rial to plunge and pushed inflation above 40 percent.
The West is also keen to seize a rare opportunity to build bridges with Iran after decades of hostility, opening the door to engaging with Tehran on other issues like the conflict in Syria, where Iran has backed President Bashar al-Assad against the anti-regime insurgents.
Last month's talks in Geneva -- held in English for the first time -- saw Iran reportedly outline a two-stage process that would resolve the dispute within a year.
Speaking to journalists in Geneva on the eve of this week's talks, a senior US official said Washington is willing to offer Iran limited sanctions relief if it agrees to take a "first step" to stop advancing its nuclear programme.
"What we're looking for now is a first phase, a first step, an initial understanding that stops Iran's nuclear programme from moving forward... and that potentially rolls some of it back," said the official.
"We are prepared to offer limited, targeted and reversible sanctions relief," the official said.
The P5+1 group has held years of talks with Tehran on its uranium enrichment, which Western powers suspect may be aimed at developing nuclear weapons.
Iran has repeatedly denied this, insisting its nuclear programme is only for generating electricity and for medical purposes.
The six powers have been pushing Iran to freeze its enrichment efforts, reduce stockpiles and lower its capacity to produce nuclear material.
Even if negotiators can reach a deal, both sides will have to overcome deep scepticism among hardliners opposed to any compromise.
Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear power, has staunchly opposed easing sanctions and its supporters in the US Congress could come out against even marginal concessions to Iran.
Ahead of Thursday's talks, Israel urged world powers to reject a proposal that would ease sanctions in exchange for certain suspensions of Iran's nuclear programme.
"Israel thinks this is a bad deal and will oppose it strongly," an official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
© 2013 AFP