Top diplomats from Iran and the United States met Wednesday for talks aimed at speeding up negotiations for a nuclear deal as a third deadline for an historic accord looms.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif huddled in an upscale Geneva hotel, ahead of full negotiations with global powers here on Sunday.
They are seeking to break a stalemate which has caused them to miss two previous deadlines for a full agreement to rein in Iran’s suspect nuclear programme.
Zarif told reporters Wednesday’s talks were “important.”
“I think it will show the readiness of the two parties to move forward to speed up the process.”
But asked if there would be a comprehensive deal by the new July 1 deadline, he remained cautious replying: “We’ll see.”
Past negotiations have stumbled reportedly over Iran’s insistence that it retain the right to enrich some uranium — which can in some cases be used to make an atomic bomb — for what it says is a peaceful civilian nuclear programme.
There has also been disagreement over global sanctions, with Tehran calling for an end to an iron-fisted regime which has crippled Iran’s economy, while the US has insisted on a temporary, gradual suspension.
Negotiators have been tight-lipped about their differences and Zarif would not go into detail when asked about the thorniest matters still clouding the talks.
“All issues are hard until we resolve them and all issues are easy if you resolve them,” he told reporters travelling with Kerry.
Kerry has said the aim of his talks with Zarif on Wednesday is to “take stock” and provide guidance for their negotiating teams ahead of fresh discussions by global powers known as the P5+1 here on Sunday.
– Clock ticking –
The top US diplomat, who was accompanied to Wednesday’s talks by his chief negotiators Wendy Sherman and Bill Burns, also told reporters earlier this week that he hopes to “accelerate the process to make greater progress.”
The two teams met for two hours Wednesday morning, broke for a short pause, and then resumed their negotiations.
Diplomats fear that time may be running out, after two earlier deadlines for a deal were missed.
The new Republican-controlled Congress is already considering a bill which would slap new sanctions on Iran despite attempts by the Obama administration to hold them off.
Washington’s UN envoy Samantha Power said Monday that ratcheting up sanctions against Iran would likely torpedo the negotiations.
“Imposing new sanctions will almost certainly end a negotiations process that has not only frozen the advance of Iran’s nuclear programme, but that could lead us to an understanding that would give us confidence in its exclusively peaceful nature,” Power told a US think-tank.
“If we pull the trigger on new nuclear-related sanctions now, we will go from isolating Iran to isolating ourselves,” she said.
But earlier Zarif told Iranian television that “we have arrived at the stage where the other party must take decisions so we can go forward.”
“New proposals must be put forward. We are ready to discuss all the issues, but we will have to see if the other side is ready,” he said, repeating Iran’s insistence that it is not seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Under an interim deal between world powers and Tehran in force since January 2014, Iran agreed to limit its uranium enrichment.
In return, Iran received limited relief from a network of global sanctions, obtaining about $7 billion (over 8 billion euros) from more than $100 billion in oil revenues frozen in bank accounts around the world.
But two deadlines for a comprehensive accord with the P5+1 group of nations — the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia plus Germany — have since been missed as they have tussled to nail down a complex, technical deal.