Iran nuclear talks end as deadline extended by four months
Marathon talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna ended Saturday after negotiators gave themselves four more months to try and bridge major gaps and strike a historic nuclear deal.
New rounds of talks were expected in the coming weeks, with the date and place yet to be decided, diplomats said.
"While we have made tangible progress on some of the issues and have worked together on a text (for a deal)... there are still significant gaps on some core issues," lead negotiator and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told journalists in the early hours of Saturday.
The talks will now continue until November 24, she added.
Under the terms of the extension, the United States said it would unblock some $2.8 billion (2.1 billion euros) in frozen funds, in return for Iran converting a quarter of its 20-percent enriched uranium stocks -- which can be used to make a bomb -- into fuel.
American officials left Vienna with the aim of resuming talks, perhaps at expert level, in August. The UN general assembly in September is also expected to provide a "fulcrum" for the next phase of negotiations, one US administration official said.
In a statement repeated in Farsi by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ashton said the parties would "reconvene in the coming weeks... with the clear determination to reach agreement... at the earliest possible moment".
Last November, Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany agreed an interim deal under which the Islamic republic froze certain nuclear activities for six months in return for some sanctions relief.
But they gave themselves the option of pushing back the July 20 deadline if they failed to transform the interim deal into a lasting accord in that time.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who this week spent two days in Vienna trying to broker a breakthrough, said Friday the "short extension" was "warranted by the progress we've made and the path forward we can envision".
"To turn our back prematurely on diplomatic efforts when significant progress has been made would deny ourselves the ability to achieve our objectives peacefully," Kerry said.
- Extending breakout -
The final deal would ease fears that despite its denials Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons after a decade of atomic expansion.
But it is highly ambitious and fiendishly complex.
The six powers want Iran to dramatically reduce its nuclear programme for a lengthy period of time and agree to more intrusive UN inspections.
This would expand the time needed for Tehran to develop a nuclear weapon, while giving the world ample warning of any such "breakout" push.
The two sides are believed to have narrowed their positions in recent weeks on a few issues such as the Arak reactor, which could give Iran weapons-grade plutonium, and enhanced inspections.
But they remain far apart on the key issue of Iran's capacities to enrich uranium, a process which can produce fuel for reactors but also the core of a nuclear bomb.
- Unlocking of funds -
Kerry said Friday that under the terms of the new extension, Washington would unblock some $2.8 billion in frozen Iranian funds.
In return, Iran would continue its partial nuclear freeze and take further steps including turning medium-enriched uranium into reactor fuel.
"Once the... material is in fuel form, it will be very difficult for Iran to use this material for a weapon in a breakout scenario," Kerry said.
"Let me be clear: Iran will not get any more money during these four months than it did during the last six months, and the vast majority of its frozen oil revenues will remain inaccessible," he said.
US officials said that in the past six months, Iranian oil sales brought in a further $25 billion, on top of the about $100 billion already frozen in accounts around the world.
But both the US and Iran face tough domestic pressure.
US lawmakers, widely supportive of Iran's arch enemy Israel, have threatened to ramp up sanctions without a sufficiently rigorous agreement.
But senior US administration officials reiterated that they opposed any new sanctions for the time being, arguing diplomacy should still be given a chance to work.
"We will not accept anything less than a comprehensive resolution that meets our objectives, which is why it is necessary for negotiations to continue," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement.
Iran's negotiators in turn face pressure from hardliners, who view the United States as the ultimate enemy and oppose any agreement seen as a concession.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, on a visit to Cairo, said Saturday he hoped that with the new deadline, Iran will "at last make the necessary choices that we expect to reach a complete, credible and lasting agreement."
His German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for Iran to "show it is ready to dispel all doubts" about its nuclear intentions.
The next few months "could be the last and best chance for a long time to end this nuclear argument peacefully," he warned.
In Vienna on Saturday, China's chief negotiator in the talks, Wang Qun, described the new deadline as "a window of opportunity," noting "very sincere efforts and commitments" shown by both Iran and world powers in talks.
© 2014 AFP