Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program picked up pace on Saturday with the French and German foreign ministers joining US Secretary of State John Kerry in talks with Tehran’s top diplomat ahead of an end-of-March deadline for a preliminary deal.
With just four days to go until that target, negotiators in the Swiss town of Lausanne settled in for another round of lengthy sessions that they hope will produce an outline of an agreement that can become the basis for a comprehensive deal to be reached by the end of June.
Iranian negotiator Majid Takht-e Ravanchi denied a news report that the sides were close to agreement, and other officials also spoke of remaining obstacles.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters as he arrived that the talks have been “long and difficult. We’ve advanced on certain issues, not yet enough on others.”
Iranian nuclear agency chief Ali Akbar Salehi described one or two issues as becoming “twisted.” He told Iran’s ISNA news agency that the sides were working to resolve the difficulties.
Kerry met early in the day with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, ahead of talks with Fabius and Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The foreign ministers of Russia, China and Britain also were expected in Lausanne over the weekend. Diplomats at the talks said their presence does not necessarily mean a deal is almost done.
Steinmeier avoided predictions of an outcome, saying only that a nuclear deal could help ease Mideast tensions. “The endgame of the long negotiations has begun,” he said.
Iran and world powers are “very close” to signing the framework agreement, an Iranian official told Reuters earlier Saturday.
“The sides are very, very close to the final step and it could be signed or agreed and announced verbally,” said the senior official.
“The plan is for the 2-3 page (document) to be made public,” another official familiar with the talks added.
“There has been massive progress on all the issues,” an Iranian official said Friday, according to Reuters. “There are still disputes over two issues — R&D (research and development) and UN sanctions.”
As Iran hailed advances toward the deal, an Israeli official described the terms of the looming agreement as “incomprehensibly” bad and rejected the Obama administration’s contention that it would keep the regime a year away from accumulating enough fissile material for a bomb.
Estimating that a framework deal would indeed be signed soon, and that a full agreement would follow in June, the official lamented the US-led negotiators’ apparent readiness to remove sanctions without Iran being required to halt its global terrorist activities, and listed a host of areas in which Tehran was working against American, Israeli and moderate Arab interests without being made to pay a price.
His comments underlined immense Israeli opposition to the emerging deal that saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lobby against it in Congress earlier this month to the abiding anger of the Obama Administration. Charged with forming a new government on Wednesday after winning the March 17 elections, Netanyahu vowed to patch up ties with the US, but insisted Israel would do everything to thwart the emerging Iranian nuclear deal, which he said was “an agreement that endangers us, our neighbors and the world.”
Zarif, for his part, said Friday that “the talks are very difficult and very complicated.”
Zarif also sought Friday to dismiss concerns that his country’s preoccupation with the crisis in Yemen could pre-empt attempts to find common ground at nuclear talks with six world powers, saying the negotiations remained focused on sealing a deal.
Yemen is “the hot issue of the day” and has come up at the talks but “it doesn’t mean that we negotiated about it,” Zarif told reporters.
Saudi-led air strikes on Shiite rebels in Yemen are straining relations between the Sunni Gulf kingdom and predominantly Shiite Iran. Zarif said they “have to stop and everybody has to encourage dialogue and national reconciliation.”
Despite Iran’s concerns over Yemen, however, “our negotiations are confined to the nuclear” issue, he said.
The sides are hoping to narrow gaps in time to reach a preliminary deal by the end of the month. That would allow them to try and negotiate a comprehensive agreement by late June to put long-term curbs on Tehran’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.
Iranian officials have been upbeat recently about the chances of making enough progress by Tuesday to permit them to proceed into the summer. But Zarif was less bullish Friday, saying only that he hoped the sides would come to a common understanding by next week.
The Obama administration has made an accord that lessens fear about Iran’s nuclear weapons potential a top foreign policy objective.
Reflecting Tehran’s interest in reaching a deal, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sent a letter to Obama and the leaders of the other countries at the talks — Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. His office said Friday the letters contained proposals on how to reach a deal, without elaborating. Rouhani also spoke to the leaders of Russia, France and Britain by phone.
The fate of a fortified underground bunker previously used for uranium enrichment appeared close to resolution. Officials have told The Associated Press that the U.S. may allow Iran to run hundreds of centrifuges at the formerly secret facility in exchange for limits on centrifuge work and research and development at other sites.
The trade-off would allow Iran to run several hundred of the devices at its Fordo facility, although the Iranians would not be allowed to do work that could lead to an atomic bomb and the site would be subject to international inspections.
In return, Iran would be required to scale back the number of centrifuges it runs at its Natanz facility and accept other restrictions on nuclear-related work.
Instead of uranium, which can be enriched to be the fissile core of a nuclear weapon, any centrifuges permitted at Fordo would be fed elements such as zinc, xenon or germanium for separating out isotopes used in medicine, industry or science, the officials said.
Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.