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No progress in Iran nuclear talks

Published 01/04/2015

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said he was returning to the Iran nuclear talks (AP)
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said he was returning to the Iran nuclear talks (AP)

Negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme appeared to be heading for double overtime today, beset by competing claims after diplomats abandoned a March 31 deadline for the outline of a deal and agreed to press on.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said negotiators were still facing a "tough struggle", indicating that the talks were not likely to end any time soon. And other officials indicated that the efforts, already extended into today, would probably now drag on into tomorrow.

Iran and six powers have been locked in haggling for nearly a week over what an initial understanding should look like, reflecting the significant gaps facing them.

Mr Steinmeier said he hoped that when the talks end "we won't just be reporting about closing gaps" but also will be providing details of agreement on important points. His comment reflected unhappiness with Iran's insistence that the talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, should end only with a vague statement of principles.

The German said he held out hope that the sides would be able to negotiate a preliminary accord which will let them embark on a new phase of talks aiming for a final deal by June.

Earlier, Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, told reporters that if the sides make progress on the text of a joint statement, then that could be issued by the end of today. But he suggested that the statement would contain no specifics.

A senior Western official said nothing about a statement had been decided and that Iran's negotiating partners would not accept a document that contained no details.

Mr Araghchi named differences on sanctions relief on his country as one dispute, along with disputes over Iran's uranium enrichment-related research and development.

"Definitely our research and development programme on high-end centrifuges should continue," he told Iranian television.

The US and its negotiating partners want to crimp Iranian efforts to improve the performance of centrifuges which enrich uranium because advancing the technology could let Iran produce material that could be used to arm a nuclear weapon much more quickly than at present.

The exchanges reflected significant gaps between the sides, and came shortly after the end of the first post-deadline meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry, his British and German counterparts and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif in Lausanne. They and their teams were continuing a marathon effort to bridge still significant gaps and hammer out a framework accord.

Eager to avoid a collapse in the discussions, the United States and others claimed late yesterday that enough progress had been made to warrant an extension after six days of intense bartering. The foreign ministers of China, France and Russia all departed Lausanne overnight, although the significance of their absence was not clear.

Mr Zarif said solutions to many of the problems had been found and documents attesting to that would soon be drafted. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said before leaving that the negotiators had reached agreement in principle on all key issues, and in the coming hours it would be put on paper.

Others were more sceptical.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Iran might still not be ready to accept what is on the table.

Officials say the intention is to produce a joint statement outlining general political commitments to resolving concerns about Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. In addition, they are trying to fashion other documents that would lay out in more detail the steps they must take by June 30 to meet those goals.

The additional documents would allow the sides to make the case that the next round of talks will not simply be a continuation of negotiations that have already been twice extended since an interim agreement between Iran, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany was concluded in November 2013. President Barack Obama and other leaders, including Iran's, have said they are not interested in a third extension.

But if the parties agree only to a broad framework that leaves key details unresolved, Mr Obama can expect stiff opposition at home from members of Congress who want to move forward with new, stiffer Iran sanctions. Politicians had agreed to hold off on such a measure during March while the parties negotiated. The White House says new sanctions would scupper further diplomatic efforts to contain Iran's nuclear work and possibly lead Israel to act on threats to use military force to accomplish that goal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has campaigned tirelessly for months against the emerging agreement, said it would "ensure a bad deal that would endanger Israel, the Middle East and the peace of the world".

"A better deal would significantly roll back Iran's nuclear infrastructure. A better deal would link the eventual lifting of the restrictions on Iran's nuclear programme to a change in Iran's behaviour," he said.

The US and its negotiating partners are demanding curbs on Iranian nuclear activities which could be used to make weapons, and they say any agreement must extend the time Tehran would need to produce a weapon from the present several months to at least a year.

The Iranians deny such military intentions, but they are negotiating with the aim that a deal will end sanctions on their economy.

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