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Crunch time as US and Iran resume nuclear talks

AFP

The US and Iran plunged back into nuclear negotiations Monday in the Swiss city of Lausanne with just two weeks to go before a self-imposed March 31 deadline for a political agreement.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry began meeting with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif to try to narrow the gaps ahead of the deadline.

Reporting from Lausanne, FRANCE 24’s Sanam Shantyaie noted that “there’s certainly a will to try and complete a framework of the nuclear agreement ahead of the end-of-March deadline. They will then have until the end of June to fine tune the details.”

Monday’s meeting included US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi, who also met on Sunday to negotiate technical details on how to curb Iran's nuclear programme.

Kerry has urged Iran to make concessions that would allow six world powers to reach a political framework agreement for a nuclear deal with Tehran that would lift sanctions in exchange for curbs of its nuclear programme.

The meeting in Lausanne kicked off an intense week of negotiations with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini set to meet her German, British and French counterparts in Brussels to try and mediate the negotiations.

The purpose of the Brussels meeting, according to Shantyaie was to “try to bring on board the more hawkish members of the team, notably the French who, in the past have been responsible for actually derailing these negotiations. It seems that their stance is more aligned with the Gulf monarchies.”

Saudi Arabia has been one of the most vocal of the Sunni Gulf monarchies opposing a nuclear deal with Shiite Iran. In an interview with the BBC Sunday, senior Saudi royal family member Prince Turki al-Faisal warned that a deal on Iran's nuclear programme could prompt other regional states to develop atomic fuel.

"I've always said whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same," said the former Saudi intelligence chief. "So if Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it's not just Saudi Arabia that's going to ask for that.”

‘Political,’ not technical differences

As Kerry arrived in Switzerland no one was promising a breakthrough. One diplomat said new differences surfaced only in the last negotiating round of what has been a 15-month process.

In a meeting in Vienna last November, Iran unexpectedly demanded that a nuclear facility buried deep underground be allowed to keep hundreds of centrifuges used for enriching uranium material and that can be used in a nuclear warhead.

Previously, the Iranians had accepted the plant would be transformed into one solely for scientific research.

The deal that had been taking shape would see Iran freeze its nuclear programme for at least a decade, with restrictions then gradually lifted over a period of perhaps the following five years. Washington and other world powers would similarly scale back sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy in several phases.

Iran says it is only interested in peaceful energy generation and medical research, but much of the world has suspected it of maintaining covert nuclear weapons ambitions. The US and its ally Israel have at various times threatened military action if Iran's programme advances too far.

Speaking Sunday on CBS News, Kerry said most of the differences between Iran and the negotiating group of the US, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia were “political,'' not technical.

He didn't elaborate, but political matters tend to include levels of inspections, Iran's past military work linked to its nuclear program, and how quickly to scale back sanctions.

Technical matters refer, for example, to how many centrifuges Iran can maintain and how much plutonium it would be allowed to produce from a planned heavy-water reactor.

US Congressional critics seize on leaks

The latest round of talks come as critics in the US Congress have seized on leaks from the negotiation to press their case that the administration of President Barack Obama is conceding too much.

Republicans and some Democrats believe a deal would be insufficient and unenforceable, allowing Iran to eventually become a nuclear-armed state. To that end, they've made a series of proposals to undercut or block an agreement, from requiring Senate say-so on a deal to ordering new sanctions against Iran while negotiations are ongoing.

Last week, 47 of the Senate's 54 Republicans signed an open letter to Iran's leaders warning that any nuclear pact they cut with the Obama administration could expire the day he leaves office. The action prompted fierce criticism from top administration officials, who declared it an unprecedented interference in the president's conduct of US foreign policy.

Reporting from Lausanne, FRANCE 24’s Shantyaei said pressure from US Congress had resulted in “some bridging of gaps” between the two sides. “They’re ruling out an extension of the end-of-March deadline – whether that’s true or part of the posturing. It seems that this is a particularly important deadline because after March, it may not be so easy to hold off a Republican-led Congress from legislative attempts to try and sabotage these negotiations.”

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

 

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