Representatives from Iran and the United States are set to meet in Geneva on Monday for their first full-scale official talks in decades aimed at bridging the gaps in negotiations for a deal on Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.
Neither the location nor the program of the two-day meeting have been announced.
The main issue however is expected to be finding a route toward an eventual lifting of sanctions.
Iranian officials are set to meet with Russian representatives separately on Wednesday.
Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister who will lead the Iranian delegation, said Sunday that the direct talks with US officials was essential as the negotiations are delicately poised.
The P5+1 group of permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, plus Germany — have long sought to reach a settlement over Iran’s nuclear program.
But with the last round of talks in Vienna in May yielding next to no progress, there has been concern that the P5+1 process was stalling.
As the deadline for the six-month interim nuclear agreement approaches on July 20, both sides are stepping up efforts to work out the details of a final deal.
The announcement on Saturday of the US-Iran meetings in Geneva came as a surprise, but appeared to confirm the need for secondary steps to close big gaps between Tehran and Washington’s positions.
“We have always had bilateral discussions with the United States in the margin of the P5+1 group, but since the talks have entered a serious phase, we want to have separate consultations,” Araqchi said, quoted by official IRNA news agency.
“Most of the sanctions were imposed by the US, and other countries from the P5+1 group were not involved,” he added, in a telling remark about how the US stance remains Iran’s main concern.
US team known
The US team in Geneva will be led by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Jake Sullivan, a top White House adviser.
The two Americans were part of a small team who through months of secret talks in Oman managed to bring Iran back to the P5+1 negotiating table last year.
Araqchi welcomed Burns’s presence, saying he hoped it would be “as positive during these negotiations” as previously.
A senior US administration official said Saturday that the Geneva talks would “give us a timely opportunity to exchange views in the context of the next P5+1 round in Vienna,” between June 16-20.
The talks are aimed at securing a comprehensive agreement on the Islamic republic’s nuclear activities, which the West suspects is aimed at developing weapons, but which Iran insists is for peaceful purposes.
After decades of hostility, Iran and the US made the first tentative steps towards rapprochement after the election of self-declared moderate Hassan Rouhani as president last June.
Rouhani called his US counterpart Barack Obama shortly after he took office, which was followed by a meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
An interim deal struck last November led the US and its partners to release $7 billion from frozen funds in return for a slowdown in Iran’s controversial uranium enrichment.
The interim deal reached by Iran and six world powers — the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany — put limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment program in exchange for the easing of some sanctions. Core sanctions, however, remain in place — including measures targeting Iran’s oil exports, the pillar of its economy.
But a long-term accord, ahead of the July 20 deadline, remains a long way off, experts say.
Cyrus Nasseri, a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team when it was led by Rouhani between 2003 and 2005, told AFP the US role as “the main interlocutor” explained the need for direct talks, and said Washington had to drop its “stubbornly recalcitrant” outlook.
“It’s all a matter of whether the US will be prepared to take the next step to accept a reasonable solution which will be win-win for both,” with Iran allowed to maintain a uranium enrichment program, he said.
“The US has to bite the bullet after 10 years of wrongful accusations. It has to accept Iran will at the end of day, no matter how the settlement is made, has peaceful nuclear fuel production.”
The US and its allies suspect Tehran is seeking atomic weapons, but Iran denies the charge saying its aims are peaceful.