Iran, powers push for breakthrough

The U.S, Chinese, Russian, French, British and German foreign ministers all pulled up their sleeves to try to seal an interim deal

Iran, powers push for breakthrough

World Bulletin/News Desk

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and foreign ministers of five other world powers joined talks on Iran's contested nuclear programme on Saturday with the two sides edging towards a breakthrough to ease a dangerous 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 curb uranium enrichment in exchange for some relief from sanctions.

Hague and 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," 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."

The powers' goal is to cap Iran's nuclear energy programme, which has a history of evading U.N. 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.

"The fact that foreign ministers have come may reflect the gravity of the negotiations and we hope that this attendance reflects the political will and determination for an agreement," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said.

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. [ID:

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.

Ryabkov said a breakthrough was closer now than at the Nov. 7-9 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," Westerwelle told reporters.

FIRST-STAGE ACCORD

"We are close to a deal but still differences over two-three issues remain," said Zarif's deputy, Abbas Araqchi.

The over-arching aim is a package of confidence-building steps to launch a process of detente with Iran after decades of tense estrangement, and banish the spectre of a devastating Middle East war over its nuclear aspirations.

The 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.

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.

TALKS AT "FINAL MOMENT"?

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.

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 United States and other Western powers say there is no such thing under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a "right to enrich", but Iran has viewed this as a matter of national sovereignty and crucial to any deal.

Diplomats said new, compromise wording on the table did not explicitly recognise a right to produce nuclear fuel by any country. "If you speak about the right to a peaceful nuclear programme, that's open to interpretation," a diplomat said.

Iran also wants relief from sanctions that have severely damaged its oil-dependent economy in return for any nuclear concessions it makes that could allay the West's suspicions about its stockpiling of enriched uranium.

For the powers, an interim deal would mandate a halt to Iran's enrichment of uranium to a purity of 20 percent - a major technical step towards the bomb threshold, more sweeping U.N. nuclear inspections in Iran and an Arak reactor shutdown.

If a preliminary agreement is reached, it would run for six months that would provide time for the powers and Tehran to hammer out a broader, longer-term settlement.

Diplomacy on Tehran's nuclear aspirations has revived remarkably since the election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, as president in June on promises of winning sanctions relief and diminishing Iran's international isolation.

The sides have struggled to wrap up a deal, however, bogged down in politically vexed details and hampered by long-standing mutual mistrust.

"CHRISTMAS PRESENT"

The OPEC producer rejects suspicions it is covertly trying to develop the means to produce nuclear weapons, saying it is stockpiling nuclear material for future atomic power plants.

Israel pursued its public campaign against the offer of respite from sanctions for Iran, voicing its conviction that all this would achieve would be more time for Iran to master nuclear technology and amass potential bomb fuel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told local media in Moscow that Iran was essentially given an "unbelievable Christmas present - the capacity to maintain this breakout capability for practically no concessions at all."

Last Mod: 24 Kasım 2013, 10:30
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