Talks in Geneva on Iran nuclear deal edge closer to breathrough

Negotiations continue on deal to curb Iran’s atomic activity in exchange for relief from sanctions

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Geneva International airport. Britain, China, France, Russia, the US and Germany are aiming to agree with Iran on an initial set of temporary curbs on Tehran’s nuclear programme, in return for suspending some sanctions. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/EPA

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Geneva International airport. Britain, China, France, Russia, the US and Germany are aiming to agree with Iran on an initial set of temporary curbs on Tehran’s nuclear programme, in return for suspending some sanctions. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/EPA

Sat, Nov 23, 2013, 15:04

US secretary of state John Kerry and foreign ministers of five other world powers joined talks on Iran’s contested nuclear programme, with the two sides edging towards a breakthrough to ease a dangerous decade-old standoff.

The Chinese, Russian, French, British and German foreign ministers - Wang Yi, Sergei Lavrov, Laurent Fabius, William Hague and Guido Westerwelle - all pulled up their sleeves to try to seal an interim deal under which Iran would cap its nuclear activity in exchange for limited relief from sanctions.

Mr Hague and Mr Westerwelle, however, both cautioned that a preliminary accord to turn the page on years of confrontation with the Islamic Republic was not yet guaranteed and that there was much work to do to bridge remaining differences.

“We (foreign ministers) are not here because things are necessarily finished,” Mr Hague told reporters. “There is a huge amount of agreement...(But) the remaining gaps are important and we will be turning our attention to those over coming hours. They remain very difficult negotiations.”

Diplomats earlier said a formidable sticking point in the intense negotiations, which began on Wednesday, may have been overcome with compromise language that does not explicitly recognise

Iran’s claim to a “right to enrich” uranium but acknowledges all countries’ right to their own civilian nuclear energy.

But Russian Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said Iran’s demand to continue construction of a heavy-water reactor near Arak that could yield plutonium - an alternative bomb material - remained a tough outstanding issue. Mr Ryabkov said a breakthrough was closer now than at the November 7th to 9th round of Geneva talks but, he told Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency, “unfortunately I can’t say that there is a certainty of reaching that breakthrough.”

“It’s not a done deal. There’s a realistic chance but there’s a lot of work to do,” Mr Westerwelle told reporters.

The powers’ goal is to cap Iran’s nuclear energy programme, which has a history of evading UN inspections and investigations, to remove any risk of Tehran covertly refining uranium to a level suitable for bombs rather than electricity. Iranian authorities deny any agenda to “weaponise” enrichment.

“We are close to a deal but still differences over two-three issues remain,” said Iranian Deputy foreign minister Abbar Araqchi, a senior negotiator.

An initial accord on confidence-building steps would be designed to launch a phased process of detente with Iran after decades of tense estrangement, and banish the spectre of a devastating Middle East war over its nuclear aspirations.

A preliminary pact would run for six months while the powers and Tehran hammer out a broader, longer-term settlement.

Diplomacy revived dramatically after the landslide election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, as Iranian president in June, replacing bellicose nationalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr Rouhani aims to relieve Iran’s isolation by mending fences with big powers and getting sanctions lifted.

He has obtained crucial public backing from clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, keeping powerful hardline critics at bay.

The draft deal would have Iran suspend some sensitive nuclear activities, above all medium-level enrichment, in exchange for the release of some of many billions of dollars in Iranian funds frozen in foreign bank accounts, and renewed trade in precious metals, petrochemicals and aircraft parts. The United States might also agree to relax pressure on other countries not to buy Iranian oil. Tehran has made clear it wants a more significant dilution of the sanctions blocking its oil exports and use of the international banking system. France’s Fabius, who objected to what he felt was a one-side offer to Iran floated at the November 7th to 9th negotiating round, seemed guarded on arrival in Geneva early today.

“I hope we can reach a deal, but a solid deal. I am here to work on that,” he said.

France has consistently taken a tough line over Iran’s nuclear programme, helping Paris cultivate closer ties with Tehran’s adversaries in Israel and the Gulf.

Mr Kerry left for Geneva “with the goal of continuing to help narrow the differences and move closer to an agreement,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The decision was taken after consulting with Ashton, who is coordinating talks with Iran on behalf of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, Ms Psaki said.

Later, deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that Kerry decided to travel to Geneva “in light of the progress being made” and with “the hope that an agreement will be reached”.

Echoing optimism that a deal was close, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency quoted a foreign ministry spokesman as saying the talks “have reached the final moment”.

The Islamic Republic also wants relief from economic sanctions in return for any nuclear concessions it makes that could allay the West’s suspicions that its nuclear fuel-making programme has military rather than its stated civilian goals.

Foreign ministers from the six nations negotiating with Iran waded into the previous talks on November 7th and 9th and came close to winning concessions from Iran, which they count on to reduce the risk of Iran achieving a nuclear weapons capability.