Kerry, Zarif work to close gaps in Iran nuclear talks
Washington and Tehran's top diplomats sat down again Monday for talks on Iran's nuclear programme as they struggled to narrow gaps ahead of a key deadline.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif were meeting at a luxury Geneva hotel for a third session in talks that began Sunday.
The talks are the latest in a string of meetings between the two men in a bid to forge a long-elusive nuclear deal.
World powers are trying to strike an accord with Iran that would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb in return for an easing of punishing international economic sanctions.
Iran denies its nuclear programme has any military objectives.
Tortuous negotiations over the controversy have poisoned relations between Iran and the West for years. However, there is now a heightened sense of urgency as the clock ticks down towards a March 31 deadline to agree on a political framework for the deal.
A senior State Department official said "a full schedule of meetings" was planned Monday with the participation of all the main negotiators and experts, touching on "virtually every topic".
"These meetings are steps in a long and tough process," the official said.
- 'Trying to reduce expectations' -
But Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who is taking part in the discussions, said "key questions" remained unresolved.
"All parties are negotiating with seriousness and determination, but we haven't found solutions to key questions," he told Iranian state television late Sunday.
"The gap still exists, differences exist."
Before the talks, Kerry also acknowledged that there were "still significant gaps. There is still a distance to travel."
US and Iranian diplomats have been meeting in Geneva since Friday, and senior negotiators from the so-called P5+1 group of Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany and held parallel negotiations with Tehran on Sunday to help drive the talks forward.
In a sign of the growing push for an accord, US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is taking part in the talks for the first time, as is Ali Akbar Salehi, the director of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation.
Both men led five hours of negotiations on Saturday, before Kerry's arrival.
Observers have suggested their participation could be a sign a deal is within reach.
But Kerry played down the importance of adding new negotiators to the mix, saying Moniz was present because of the "technical" nature of the discussions.
"Both sides of trying to reduce expectations, but there are also signs that usually only come towards the end of negotiations," said author Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.
"You usually don't threaten to walk away from the talks, as Kerry has, until the last phases of a negotiation, for insurance. Paradoxically, it could be a sign that they're very close," Parsi told AFP.
While the political aspects of the deal must be nailed down by the end of next month, the deadline for signing the full agreement is June 30 -- a cut-off point that looms all the larger after two previous deadlines were missed.
With both Washington and Tehran under pressure from hardliners at home eager to torpedo the deal, observers agree a new extension is unlikely.
Also Monday, in a move likely to raise hackles in the United States as well as Iran's archfoe Israel, Russia said it has offered Tehran advanced surface-to-air missiles after scrapping a similar deal in 2010 because of the UN sanctions.
Kerry warned Saturday that US President Barack Obama had "no inclination whatsoever to extend these talks beyond the period that has been set out."
Akbar Velayati, the diplomatic advisor to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, shot back Sunday that "if American leaders don't want to negotiate, it's up to them, but they were the ones who were after negotiations."
A key stumbling block in any final deal is thought to be the amount of uranium Iran would be allowed to enrich, and the number and type of centrifuges Tehran can retain.
Under an interim deal reached in November 2013, Iran's stock of fissile material has been diluted from 20 percent enriched uranium to five percent in exchange for limited sanctions relief.
Experts say such measures diminished Iran's ability to make an atomic weapon, which Tehran denies pursuing in the first place.
© 2015 AFP