Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
With only two weeks to a deadline for a breakthrough deal, senior envoys of Iran, the United States and European Union met in Oman on Sunday to try to advance efforts to defuse a standoff over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Western countries and close U.S. ally Israel suspect Iran has covertly sought to develop the means to build nuclear weapons, and a decade-long confrontation over the issue has raised the risk of a wider war in the volatile Middle East.
The discussions, between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and EU envoy Catherine Ashton, aim to put verifiable limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment work in return for a gradual lifting of sanctions.
Iran denies any secret nuclear weapons agenda, saying it wants peaceful nuclear energy only, but has refused to curb enrichment capacity and has been hit by damaging U.S., EU and U.N. Security Council sanctions as a result.
The thorniest unresolved issues are the size of Iran’s enrichment programme, the length of any long-term agreement and the pace at which international sanctions would be phased out, according to Western diplomats involved in the negotiations.
As Kerry arrived in Oman, a senior U.S. official said the three-way talks would be “an important meeting,” with the focus on making progress in order to meet the deadline.
U.S. officials say major gaps still remain in negotiating positions. Kerry said last week that the United States and its partners were not contemplating an extension of the Nov. 24 deadline, although he held out the possibility that negotiations could go beyond that date if major issues were resolved and there were only technical details to wrap up.
Speaking to Iranian state television on his arrival in the Omani capital Muscat on Saturday night, Zarif reiterated that sanctions imposed on Iran had brought “no result” for the West.
“We need to reach a solution based on mutual respect and cooperation. If the West is interested in reaching such a solution, there is possibility to find a solution and to reach an understanding before November 24,” he said.
A senior Iranian official close to the talks told Reuters that the participants would discuss “the gaps that are still huge, Iran’s enrichment capacity and time frame of lifting sanctions.”
Iran’s relations with the West have thawed since relative moderate Hassan Rouhani was elected president last year seeking to end Iran’s international isolation.
But Western officials say sharp differences remain over how to guarantee Iran’s nuclear path is peaceful, especially with respect to nuclear fuel-making activity, which can have civilian and military uses depending on the degree of uranium enrichment.
Iran and the six powers struck an interim deal last November under which Tehran halted higher-grade enrichment in exchange for limited sanctions relief. That six-month accord took effect early this year and was extended by four months in July.