World powers aim to reach a preliminary deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in politically charged talks resuming in Geneva on Wednesday.
Seeking to end a long standoff and head off the risk of a wider Middle East war, the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany came close to winning concessions from Iran on its nuclear work in return for some sanctions relief at negotiations earlier this month.
Top policymakers from the six have since said that an interim accord on confidence-building steps could finally be within reach. But diplomats caution that differences remain and could still prevent an agreement.
Russia is hopeful that a preliminary deal will emerge this week, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
“We hope the efforts that are being made will be crowned with success at the meeting that opens today in Geneva,” he told a news conference on Wednesday.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tehran would not step back from its nuclear rights and he had set “red lines” for his negotiators in Geneva.
“I insist on stabilizing the rights of the Iranian nation, including the nuclear rights,” Khamenei said in a rare, live televised address.
“I insist on not retreating one step from the rights of the Iranian nation,” he added.
“I have told the officials that they must respect these limits, and not fret about the hullabaloo of the enemies and those opposed” to these talks, he said without elaborating.
Final decisions on the program rest with Khamenei.
But the Iranian leader added that Tehran wanted friendly ties with all countries, including the United States.
“We want to have friendly relations with all nations, even the United States,” he said.
The last meeting stumbled over Iran’s insistence that its “right” to enrich uranium be recognized, and disagreement over its work on a heavy-water reactor near Arak, which could yield plutonium for atomic bombs once it becomes operational.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif has since indicated a way around the first sticking point, saying Tehran has the right to refine uranium but is not insisting others recognize that right.
A UN report last week showed Iran had stopped expanding its enrichment of uranium and had not added major new components at Arak since August, when moderate Hassan Rohani replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.
Nuclear analyst Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group think-tank said the “body language” showed that the sides were ready for a deal, pointing to Iran slowing its nuclear push and Washington refraining, so far, from imposing more sanctions.
“(They) have demonstrated that they are looking to transform stumbling blocks into stepping stones,” Vaez said.
Zarif, Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator, said on the eve of the meeting there was “every possibility” of a successful conclusion provided there was good faith and the political will among all involved to resolve problems.
US President Barack Obama sounded a more cautious note on Tuesday, saying it was unclear whether the world powers and Iran will be able to reach an agreement soon.
American lawmakers urged the Obama administration on Tuesday to take a tougher line with Iran.
The talks are expected to resume with a meeting between Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who coordinates contacts with Iran on behalf of the powers.
Western governments claim Iran has enriched uranium with the covert aim of developing the means to fuel nuclear weapons, which Tehran denies. Refined uranium can fuel nuclear power plants – Iran’s stated goal – but also provide the core of a nuclear bomb, if enriched further.
After years of confrontation, a shift towards meaningful diplomacy between Iran and the world powers began after the June election of Rohani on a platform to relieve the Islamic Republic’s increasing international isolation and get sanctions strangling its oil-dependent economy lifted.
Rohani wants to move quickly: Western sanctions have reduced Iran’s daily oil export revenue by 60 percent since 2011 and caused its currency to collapse.
In a telephone call with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Rohani stressed Tehran’s firm right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program, Iranian media reported Wednesday.
Cameron’s call on Tuesday to Rohani was the first such high-level exchange between the two countries in a decade.
“As Iran is determined that its nuclear activities will remain peaceful, it will strongly defend its nuclear rights,” the official IRNA news agency reported Rohani as telling Cameron.
“We will accept no discrimination on this issue. The language of respect must replace that of threats and sanctions,” he added.
IRNA said Rohani also held talks on the telephone with Chinese President Xi Jinping, telling him Tehran was seeking “an accord which preserves its rights and shows that the Iranian nuclear program is totally peaceful.”
He called for China to oppose “excessive demands of certain countries,” referring to France which took a tough stand at the last round of talks in Geneva at the start of November.
But foreign diplomats say Iran has so far refused to meet all of the Western powers’ demands. They include suspending enrichment of uranium to 20 percent fissile purity – a significant advance toward the threshold for bomb fuel – as well as limiting its enrichment capacity and mothballing the Arak reactor project.
The Iranian assets that would be unfrozen as part of any deal this week would amount to less than $10 billion, US national security adviser Susan Rice told CNN.
Western diplomats have kept much of the details of the proposed deal under wraps but said Iran would not win relief from the most painful sanctions on oil trade and banking.
Under an initial deal the OPEC producer is likely to regain access to precious metals markets and trade in petrochemicals, an important source of export income, and could see the release of some of its oil revenues frozen in overseas accounts.
If an agreement is struck in the coming days, it is intended to be the first step on the road towards a broader settlement that would avert the threat a new Middle East war.
In crafting a deal, Western governments are wary of critics across the Middle East, especially in Israel and Saudi Arabia, who view Iran as a deadly threat, and of hawks in the US Congress who want stiffer sanctions and terms for Tehran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived on Thursday in Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin, in a last-minute bid to influence the emerging nuclear deal.
Netanyahu has warned Washington, Israel’s main ally, to avoid making a “historical mistake” when negotiators appeared close to a deal this month. Israel wants Iran to scrap its entire nuclear energy infrastructure.
Israel, widely assumed to be the only nuclear power in the Middle East, has threatened to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities if it deems diplomacy futile in reining in Tehran before it attains nuclear “breakout” capability.
In response to the Israeli threats, Khamenei said Wednesday that the Jewish state was a regime doomed to “collapse.”
“The (Israeli) Zionist regime is a regime whose pillars are extremely shaky and is doomed to collapse,” Khamenei said. “Any phenomenon that is created by force cannot endure.”
(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)