World Bulletin/News Desk
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday there were still serious gaps in talks over Iran's nuclear programme despite signs of some progress two days before a deadline to reach a deal between Tehran and major powers.
"We're working hard," Kerry said ahead of a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. "We hope we're making careful progress, but we have big gaps, we still have some serious gaps, which we're working to close."
No new idea or remarkable proposal has come yet from the world powers’ group, the P5+1, during ongoing talks over Iran’s nuclear issue, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said late Friday.
The tenth round of talks in Vienna kicked off on Nov. 18 which aim at reaching a permanent settlement to Tehran’s controversial nuclear program.
Zarif and chief negotiator for world powers’ group Catherine Ashton met during the first day of the ongoing negotiations at the Iranian embassy in Vienna for a working lunch, just days before the Nov. 24 deadline.
“There have been no remarkable proposals in nuclear talks worth taking to Tehran,” the Iranian minister said on his official website.
Some media organizations in Iran had said that Zarif might go to Tehran to consult with top officials on alleged new offers made by world powers' group.
According to Zarif, “there have been a lot of discussions in the talks, but there have been no new ideas or remarkable proposals to take to Tehran.”
Officially, the United States and its Western allies say it is vital that Iran fully addresses the concerns of the U.N. nuclear agency if it wants a diplomatic settlement that would end sanctions severely hurting its oil-based economy.
"Iran's previous activities have to come to light and be explained," a senior Western diplomat said.
Privately, however, some officials acknowledge that Iran would probably never admit to what they believe it was guilty of: covertly working in the past to develop the means and expertise needed to build a nuclear-armed missile.
Iran denies this and says its nuclear programme is peaceful.
The six powers face a delicate balancing act: Israel and hawkish U.S. lawmakers - wary of any rapprochement with old foe Iran - are likely to pounce on a deal if they believe it is too soft on Tehran's alleged nuclear arms activity.
A senior Western official said the six would try to "be creative" in coming up with a formula that would satisfy demands by those who want Iran to come clean about any atomic bomb research and those who say it is unrealistic to expect the country to openly acknowledge it.
The outcome could also affect the standing of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which for years has been trying to investigate what it calls the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran's nuclear programme.
While the global powers - the United States, France, Germany, Russia, China and Britain - seek to persuade Iran to scale back its uranium enrichment programme to lengthen the timeline for any bid to assemble nuclear arms, the IAEA is investigating possible research on designing an actual bomb.
The aim is to reach a comprehensive solution to end a 12-year nuclear dispute by a Nov. 24 deadline, though diplomats say it is more likely that the negotiations will be extended.
If an eventual accord does not put strong pressure on Iran to increase cooperation with the IAEA by making it a condition for some sanctions relief, it may hurt its future credibility, according to some diplomats accredited to the agency.
"You don't want to undermine the integrity of the IAEA," one said.
The IAEA issued a report in 2011 with intelligence information indicating concerted activities until about a decade ago that could be relevant for developing nuclear bombs, some of which the U.N. agency said may be continuing.
Iran has made clear that it is not an issue it is ready to budge on. "PMD is out of question. It cannot be discussed," an Iranian official said.
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano this week said Iran had again failed to provide explanations needed for the inquiry, making clear it has made scant headway in recent months.
"I believe the PMD issue is not a deal-breaker even though it probably should be," another Western official said. The official added that many inside the IAEA and Western governments shared concerns about the deadlocked investigation and felt uneasy about compromising on the issue.
Iran denies ever harbouring any nuclear bomb ambitions and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued a religious decree against atomic weaponry.
Because of this, experts say, it is virtually impossible for the Iranian leadership to make any "mea culpa" about activity geared towards developing nuclear bombs.
Another reason Tehran might be reluctant to admit to any wrongdoing is that it could later be used as a justification for Iran's enemies to attack it out of "self-defence".
As a result, the powers are weighing how hard to press it.
A U.S. official said it was "a fine line" that needs to be walked on PMD. The six want to make sure the Iranians address the issue to some extent, but do not want to hit them so hard with it that they feel like they will lose face.
Experts differ on whether Iran must come completely clean: some argue it is necessary to ensure that any such work has since been halted but others say this can be achieved without a "confession".