GENEVA, Switzerland — US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were set to meet again in Geneva on Monday for a second say of nuclear negotiations.
Kerry arrived in the Swiss city on Sunday for the latest round of talks with his Iranian counterpart on Tehran’s nuclear program, after warning “significant gaps” remain ahead of a key deadline.
World powers are trying to strike a deal with Iran that would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb in return for an easing of punishing international economic sanctions.
US and Iranian diplomats have been meeting in Geneva since Friday, and senior negotiators from the so-called P5+1 group of Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany also met on Sunday to help drive the talks forward.
Speaking before the talks, Wang Qun, director general of the arms control and disarmament department of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said: Our resolve is greater than the difficulties.”
There is a heightened sense of urgency as the clock ticks down toward a March 31 deadline to agree on a political framework for the deal.
But Kerry warned in London Saturday that “there are still significant gaps, there is still a distance to travel.”
“President (Barack) Obama has no inclination whatsoever to extend these talks beyond the period that has been set out,” Kerry said.
He said the P5+1 was “unified” in its views of what was needed to reach a deal, adding that the Geneva talks would help show “whether or not Iran is able to match its words about its willingness to show that its program is fully peaceful.”
Akbar Velayati, the diplomatic adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, shot back Sunday that “if American leaders don’t want to negotiate, it’s up to them, but they were the ones who were after negotiations.”
In a sign of the growing push for an accord, US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is taking part in the talks for the first time, as is Ali Akbar Salehi, the director of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation.
But Kerry played down any suggestion that their participation signalled a breakthrough, saying Moniz was present because of the “technical” nature of the discussions.
While the political aspects of the deal must be nailed down by the end of next month, the deadline for signing the full agreement is June 30 — a cut-off point that looms all the larger after two previous deadlines were missed.
A key stumbling block in any final deal is thought to be the amount of uranium Iran would be allowed to enrich, and the number and type of centrifuges Tehran can retain.
Under an interim deal reached in November 2013, Iran’s stock of fissile material has been diluted from 20 percent enriched uranium to five percent in exchange for limited sanctions relief.
Experts say such measures pushed back the “breakout capacity” to make an atomic weapon, which Iran denies pursuing in the first place.
‘Dangerous’ agreement for Israel, world
Negotiations have been complicated by hardliners both in Iran and the United States, as well as by Israel lobbying against a deal.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned during a cabinet meeting Sunday that if the framework agreement is signed, it “will allow Iran to develop the nuclear capabilities that threaten our existence.”
Netanyahu is controversially planning to address the US Congress on the issue on March 3 in a move to torpedo the deal.
“I will go to the US next week in order to explain to the American Congress, which could influence the fate of the agreement, why this agreement is dangerous for Israel, the region and the entire world,” he said.
Israeli officials have also allegedly leaked purported details from the talks showing the US was moving toward softening its demands on how many of Iran’s some 20,000 centrifuges it can retain.
The push instead would reportedly be toward strictly limiting the amount of enriched uranium Iran would be allowed to stockpile in the country.
Observers stressed the urgency of reaching an agreement and warned that a failure to do so would have dire consequences.
“Another extension is extremely unlikely,” Kelsey Davenport, head of the Nonproliferation Policy Arms Control Association in Washington, told AFP.
If no agreement is reached, she warned, both sides will likely head “back down the path of escalation, with Washington increasing sanctions and Iran ramping up its nuclear program.”