Six world powers and Iran began talks in Vienna on Tuesday in pursuit of a final settlement on Tehran’s disputed nuclear program in the coming months despite warnings from both sides that a deal may prove impossible.
Expected to last two or three days, the meeting is the first since the powers – the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – struck an interim accord with Iran in November under which Iran scaled back its most sensitive nuclear work in return for some sanctions relief.
In a final deal, Western governments want to define the permissible scope of an Iranian nuclear program and resolve their concerns that Tehran is seeking the capability to build an atomic bomb.
Iran, which denies having any such goal, wants the complete removal of painful economic sanctions imposed by Washington, European governments and the United Nations.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Monday he was “not optimistic” and that he expected the talks to “lead nowhere” – although he also said he was not against the negotiations.
“I repeat it again that I am not optimistic about the negotiations and they will lead nowhere, but I am not against them,” said Khamenei, who has final say on all key state matters.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, speaking after a dinner Monday with the chief negotiator for the six powers, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, was more upbeat.
“We believe we can reach an agreement and we have come here with the political will to reach a final agreement,” Zarif was quoted by Iran’s ISNA news agency as saying, adding however that it “will take time”.
“Our objective is to provide the guarantee in the negotiations that Iran’s nuclear program will remain peaceful,” Zarif added.
“It is probably as likely that we won’t get an agreement as it is that we will,” said one senior US administration official for the talks.
“But these negotiations are the best chance we have ever had.”
Foreign ministers from the seven countries struck a deal in Geneva on November 24 that was widely hailed as an enormous breakthrough after a decade of failed diplomatic efforts and rising tensions.
Under the accord, which took effect on January 20, Iran scaled back certain nuclear activities in exchange for minor relief from painful sanctions and a promise of no new sanctions.
For the first time the West accepted Iran enriching uranium, a process producing nuclear fuel but potentially also material for a bomb, having previously demanded a total suspension.
But the freeze only lasts until July 20 – although it can be extended – and experts say that success in Geneva came at the price of postponing discussions on the really difficult issues.
“Geneva really was a stop gap, a band-aid solution that didn’t really heal the wounds,” Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, Iran and Middle East lecturer at Manchester University, told AFP.
Under the “comprehensive” solution that the parties aim to sew up by November, the six powers want Iran to scale back permanently – or at least for a very long time – its nuclear program.
This might include closing the underground Fordo facility, slashing the number of centrifuges enriching uranium, cutting the stockpile of fissile material and altering a new reactor being built at Arak.
This, plus much tighter UN inspections, would not remove entirely Iran’s capability to get the bomb but would make it substantially more difficult.
In exchange, all UN Security Council, US and EU sanctions on Iran – which are costing it billions of dollars every week in lost oil revenues, wreaking havoc on the economy – would be lifted.
But whether Iran will play along remains to be seen, having before the talks set out a number of “red lines” including not dismantling any facilities.
(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)