Diplomats grapple for Iran deal amid talk of delay
Diplomats grappled to secure a landmark deal at talks on Iran's nuclear programme Saturday, but Tehran raised the prospect of negotiations being put off after cracks emerged among world powers.
France in particular voiced concerns about a proposed deal, questioning whether it would go far enough to limit Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
As intensive negotiations continued in Geneva, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged world powers not to miss the chance for a deal.
“I hope that the P5+1 group make the most out of this exceptional opportunity that the Iranian nation has offered to the international community, so that we can reach a positive result within a reasonable timeframe,” he was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.
The US, British, French, German and Russian foreign ministers had rushed to Geneva to join the talks amid hopes of a breakthrough toward ending the decade-old standoff on Iran’s nuclear efforts.
US Secretary of State John Kerry cut off a Middle East tour to fly to Geneva and, despite reports the talks had broken down, joined Iran’s foreign minister and the chief EU diplomat, Catherine Ashton, for fresh negotiations on Saturday evening.
The proposed agreement — seen as a first step ahead of further talks on a final deal — would see Iran freeze parts of its nuclear programme for as long as six months in exchange for some relief from the sanctions battering its economy.
Officials have repeatedly said progress is being made but cautioned that serious obstacles remain.
After several meetings with fellow diplomats, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said there were still “disagreements” on some questions and pointed to divisions among world powers.
“There are differences of opinion within the P5+1 group,” he was quoted as saying by Iranian news agency ISNA, adding that negotiations would not continue into Sunday if a deal was not reached.
“If we do not reach an agreement tonight, the talks will be resumed in the next seven or 10 days,” he said.
Saying there was “no certainty” of a deal, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris did not accept an initial draft of the deal as presented.
The French foreign minister cited calls for Iran to halt operations at its Arak nuclear reactor and questions about enriched uranium stockpiles as particular points of contention.
“If these questions are not settled, it will not be possible” to reach a deal, Fabius told France Inter radio, saying an agreement also needed “to take fully into account Israel’s security concerns”.
Using unusually harsh language, a Western diplomat said France was complicating the talks.
“The Americans, the EU and the Iranians have been working intensively together for months on this proposal, and this is nothing more than an attempt by Fabius to insert himself into relevance late in the negotiations,” the diplomat told AFP.
Senior Iranian lawmakers also lashed out at Fabius, with Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, the spokesman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, saying “the behaviour of the French representative in the nuclear talks shows that France is trying to blackmail” Iran.
Pressure was high for the diplomats to finally reach a deal after a decade of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
Officials had a series of meetings on Saturday, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong also arriving to join the talks. The talks began on Thursday and on Friday went on until almost midnight.
Reports say the proposed deal could see Iran stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, which is just a few technical steps from weapons-grade, reduce existing stockpiles and agree not to activate its plutonium reactor at Arak.
Global powers would in exchange take limited and “reversible” measures to ease sanctions, such as unfreezing some Iranian funds in foreign accounts.
Negotiators would then have time to work out a more comprehensive deal that Iran has said it hopes could be in place within a year.
The possible agreement already came under fire from Tehran’s arch-foe Israel, widely thought to be the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear armed power which has opposed any move to ease sanctions.
“This is a very bad deal. Israel utterly rejects it,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The world powers in the talks suspect Iran’s programme is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, despite Tehran’s repeated denials.
Iran also expects to sign an accord with the chief of the UN nuclear watchdog on Monday that will include “concrete actions”, Tehran’s ambassador to the agency, Reza Najafi, told state television.
The two tracks of talks — with the IAEA and P5+1 — over Iran’s atomic activities were given new momentum by the June election of Rouhani, seen as a relative moderate.
Iran is anxious for relief from crippling US and European Union economic sanctions that have cut oil revenues by more than half, caused the value of its currency to plunge and pushed inflation above 40 percent.