Western nations on Saturday played down reports of discord in their ranks and affirmed their “unity of purpose” in the Iran nuclear talks, urging the Islamic Republic to make “difficult decisions”.
The British, French, German and US foreign ministers noted “substantial progress” in the discussions with Tehran, which are due to resume next week, but said there was still no agreement on some “important issues.”
The foreign ministers’ gathering in London came a day after the latest talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States plus Germany — ended without a breakthrough.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, Britain’s Philip Hammond, France’s Laurent Fabius, Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the EU’s Federica Mogherini said they were “equally committed” to reaching a satisfactory deal.
“We will all continue to work together with unity of purpose,” read a joint statement following the talks in London, adding: “Now is the time for Iran, in particular, to take difficult decisions”.
“Any solution must be comprehensive, durable and verifiable. None of our countries can subscribe to a deal that does not meet these terms,” they said.
In the run-up to the London meeting on Saturday, there had been reports of differences emerging between France and the US.
Top Russian negotiator Sergey Ryabkov and Iran’s atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi said in recent days that technical work was nearly done. But French officials insisted the sides were far from any agreement.
France has expressed skepticism over the speed of a potential deal in which Iran would place its nuclear program under severe restrictions in exchange for a stage-by-stage lifting of international sanctions.
British newspaper The Guardian, citing diplomats, said that Paris only wanted a symbolic easing of the sanctions initially.
“The Americans are ready for an agreement that is far from the goals that were initially set,” a source close to the negotiations told AFP.
Iran and six world powers are in negotiations to clinch a landmark deal that would have the country scale back its controversial nuclear program in return for relief from sanctions.
In Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani struck an upbeat tone saying that “an agreement is possible.”
“There is nothing that cannot be resolved,” the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meanwhile moved to quell speculation that a deal with the West could lead to wider cooperation.
“No way,” he told a raucous crowd in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad in a closely-watched speech marking the Persian new year festival of Nowruz.
Khamenei’s comments appeared to be a rejection of overtures made by US President Barack Obama that a deal could lead to cooperation, chiefly against Islamic State jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
“The lifting of sanctions is part of the negotiations and not the outcome,” Khamenei told the crowd, insisting that there could be no delay between the implementation of a deal and the removal of sanctions.
“What the Iranian nation does not want is to accept what the Americans want to impose by force,” he said, as the crowd chanted back: “Death to America!”
Iran and the US have announced that the talks would resume on Wednesday or Thursday in Switzerland.
That leaves the two sides less than a week to meet a March 31 deadline for agreeing the outlines of a nuclear deal they hope will end a 12-year stand-off.
That deadline is itself subject to debate, though, with France’s ambassador to Washington Gerard Araud calling it “counter-productive and dangerous”.
“Need all our time to finalize a complex agreement,” he wrote on Twitter, adding that it put “pressure on ourselves to conclude at any price.”
Before leaving for London, Fabius said any deal with Iran must be “solid and robust.”
The complex deal on the table, due to be finalised by July, is aimed at convincing the world that Iran will not build nuclear weapons under the guise of its ongoing civilian energy program.
It would likely involve Iran reducing its nuclear activities, allowing tight inspections, and limiting development of new nuclear machinery.
In exchange, Iran — which denies wanting nuclear weapons — would get relief from the mountain of painful sanctions that have strangled its oil exports and hammered its economy.
Khamenei said Saturday that the US insists “on putting pressure on our dear people’s economy,” referring to economic sanctions aimed at halting the nuclear program. “What is their goal? Their goal is to put the people against the system,” he said. “The politics of America is to create insecurity,” he added, referring both to US pressure on Iran and elsewhere in the region.
Kerry speaking to reporters after six days of negotiations in the Swiss city of Lausanne, said the talks made “substantial progress” but “important gaps remain.
“We have an opportunity to get this right,” Kerry said, as he urged Iran to make “fundamental decisions” that prove to the world it has no interest in atomic weapons.
But Khamenei warned against expectations that even a done deal would mend the more than three-decade freeze between the two nations in place since the Iranian revolution and siege of the American Embassy, proclaiming that Washington and Tehran remained on opposite sides on most issues.
“Negotiations with America are solely on the nuclear issue and nothing else. Everyone has to know that,” Khamenei said.
Kerry was departing later Saturday to meet with European allies in London, in part to ensure unity, before returning to Washington. Kerry said the US and its five negotiating partners — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — are “united in our goal, our approach, our resolve and our determination.”
But France, which raised last minute objections to an interim agreement reached with Iran in 2013, could threaten a deal again. It is particularly opposed to providing Iran with quick relief from international sanctions and wants a longer timeframe for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity.
“France wants an agreement, but a robust agreement,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French radio. “That is to say, an accord that really guarantees that Iran can obviously have access to the civil nuclear (program).”
“But to the atomic bomb? No.”
France indicated Saturday that it would push for an agreement with Iran that guarantees Tehran cannot build a nuclear bomb in the future, and that it opposed a phased easing of sanctions before an accord is reached.
In the round of talks in Switzerland this weekend, cut short Friday because of the death of Rouhani’s mother, Fabius called the French delegation to make sure no more concessions were made, according to Reuters.
Kerry said the U.S. wasn’t rushing into a pact, stressing that the latest stab at a diplomatic settlement with Iran has gone on for 2 ½ years. “We don’t want just any deal,” he said. “If we had, we could have announced something a long time ago.”
But, he added, decisions “don’t get any easier as time goes by.”
“It’s time to make hard decisions,” Kerry said. “We want the right deal that would make the world, including the United States and our closest allies and partners, safer and more secure. And that is our test.”