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Iran, six powers struggle to narrow gaps in nuclear talks

© Photo: AFP archive

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-04-10

Iran’s supreme leader encouraged the continuation of nuclear talks on Wednesday but said Tehran would never slow down its nuclear research programme, as negotiators struggled to narrow "significant gaps" blocking the way to a long-term deal.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s comments came as Iran and the so-called P5-plus-one – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – emerged from two days of slow-moving talks in Vienna.

Khamenei said Tehran's negotiating team should not yield to issues "forced upon them" as the players looked towards a self-imposed July 20 deadline.

"These negotiations should continue," he told nuclear scientists in Tehran, according to the official IRNA news agency. "But all should know that negotiations will not stop or slow down any of Iran's activities in nuclear research and development."

Negotiators from the seven countries will begin their next round of talks in the Austrian capital on May 13, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif told reporters.

"A lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences," Ashton said. "We will now move to the next phase in the negotiations in which we will aim to bridge the gaps in all the key areas and work on the concrete elements of a possible comprehensive agreement."

Conflicting signals

“We’re still in the middle of this crisis,” GRN correspondent John Cummins told FRANCE 24. “There are really conflicting signals coming out of the talks. While Ashton said they were substantive, the Iranians said there was a majoritive consensus, and the Americans said there were insurmountable differences."

“Both sides want to get the best deal for themselves so there’s a lot of posturing going on,” he said.

Mohammad Khoshchehreh, a former MP and advisor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told FRANCE 24 that the Iranian government is eager to bring an end to Western-imposed sanctions.

“The government’s aim is to reach an agreement which [will allow it to] maintain its nuclear programme but also to rid it of the sanctions, so that Iran can be brought out of the crisis it’s been suffering for the past ten years,” he said.

Israeli threat

The stakes are high. Western powers, along with Russia and China, want to avert an escalation of tensions in the Middle East in the form of a new war or a regional nuclear arms race.

Israel, believed to be only nuclear-armed nation in the Middle East, has threatened to carry out a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if it is not satisfied that the nuclear programme is curbed.

"The Iranians clearly have a sense of urgency to get a deal done, as does the P5+1 [the six powers]," a senior diplomat close to the talks told Reuters.

"We know that there are still some significant gaps that remain and know this process will not be easy. But we're all committed to getting it [an agreement] done by July 20," the diplomat added, in an assessment echoed by other Western envoys.

“There are still reasons to be optimistic,” Cummins said. “Nobody’s suggesting that these talks should be extended, which is a good sign. And everybody realises this is the best chance there has been to resolve this issue. The consequences of failure are very significant.”

The toughest areas to be tackled are Iran's future uranium enrichment capacity, nuclear facilities that Western powers believe have little or no civilian value, and future nuclear research, as well as a sequence of steps to remove the international sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy.

Background tensions

Despite Khamenei's pledge to the contrary, US and European officials say they will insist on limits to Iran's efforts to develop more efficient enrichment technology, which would enable Tehran to produce sensitive nuclear material at a faster pace.

Background tensions over Russia's involvement in Ukraine and Western threats of further sanctions against Moscow, along with Washington’s denial of a visa for Iran's proposed new UN envoy in New York have so far not harmed the nuclear talks, diplomats say.

A senior Iranian official said Tehran was seeking to protect its "red lines" in what he said were "difficult" negotiations.

"Iran wants a deal in which its rights have been considered," the official told Reuters. "The talks have entered a very difficult stage. Making progress is difficult."

The six powers' goal is to extend as much as possible Iran's so-called breakout" period – the time it would need to develop a nuclear weapon. US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday the current Western assessment of Iran's capability in this regard is two months.

Iran denies accusations that it is building nuclear weapons.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

Date created : 2014-04-10

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