Tehran’s chief negotiator in nuclear talks with the US and other world powers threatened to walk away from the table, Iranian media reported Monday, as a second day of high-level negotiations were set to get underway in Switzerland.
Abbas Araqchi said Iran would leave the talks if “other parties impose their wills,” Iran’s Press TV reported Monday morning.
The sides are currently trying to hammer out a framework deal deal that would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb in return for an easing of punishing international economic sanctions, ahead of a March 24 deadline.
The comment came days after US Secretary of State John Kerry warned US President Barack Obama was “fully prepared” to pull the US out before accepting a deal leaving Tehran with potent nuclear arms-making ability.
On Sunday, senior Iranian official Ali Akbar Velayati responded by saying staying or leaving “depends on the Americans.”
“If American leaders don’t want to negotiate, it’s up to them, but they were the ones who were after negotiations,” said Velayati, the diplomatic adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The exchanges may be an attempt to play to their home audiences but could also signal difficulties at the talks with only a month to go to a first-stage deal.
Kerry arrived in Geneva on Sunday for the latest round of talks with Iranian counterpart Mohamed Javad Zarif, after warning “significant gaps” remain ahead of a key deadline.
Araqchi described the initial meeting as “fruitful,’ but stopped short of heralding any progress Sunday evening.
“It was as usual very good. Good fruitful discussions, and in a very good atmosphere. We cannot claim any progress yet, it is too early to say,” he said according to Russia’s Sputnik news outlet, quoted by Iran’s Tasnim news service.
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.”
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 signaled 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.”