November 9, 2013 7:28:04 PM
GENEVA -- Talks on a deal to temporarily curb Iran's nuclear program ran into trouble Saturday when France questioned whether the proposal went far enough, casting doubt on whether an agreement could be reached during the current round of negotiations.
Chances of bridging all differences diminished as the day went on.
A Western diplomat in Geneva for the talks told The Associated Press it appeared that a new round of negotiations would be needed to agree on all points of a startup deal meant to lead to a comprehensive agreement ensuring that Tehran's nuclear work remains peaceful.
He said preparations were being made by both sides for an announcement later in the day of a new meeting within a few weeks. He said earlier that the French were holding out for conditions on the Iranians tougher than those agreed to by the U.S. and France's other negotiating partners, diminishing hopes of a done deal Saturday.
Comments by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zariff increased skepticism that the two sides would agree on the full contours of a first-step deal at the current negotiating round.
"There are differences," Zariff told Iranian state TV, adding that if open questions remained after Saturday, the talks would reconvene within a week to 10 days.
But the current talks in Geneva were still underway late Saturday, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and foreign ministers from Britain, France, Germany and Russia meeting with one another, and some with Zariff. Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Baodong Li also arrived Friday evening.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius spoke of "several points that ... we're not satisfied with compared to the initial text," telling France-Inter Radio his nation does not want to be part of a "con game."
He did not specify, but his comments suggested France thought a final draft of any first-step deal was too favorable to Iran, echoing concerns raised by Israel and several prominent U.S. legislators.
The French position was confirmed by another Western diplomat. Both gave no specifics and demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the diplomatic maneuvering.
Iranian state TV strongly criticized the French position, calling France "Israel's representatives at the talks.
Iran's IRNA news agency cited Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as urging world powers to reach a deal.
"I hope the parties negotiating with Iran in the 5+1 group use the exceptional opportunity that the Iranian nation has provided to the West and the international community so that we achieve a positive result in a reasonable time," IRNA quoted Rouhani as telling a Japanese foreign minister visiting Tehran Saturday evening.
Rouhani said sanctions and threats don't benefit anyone.
Iran "has insisted that threats and sanctions have not resolved any problem and further complicate the path forward, and believes that the only solution is talks on the basis of respect and mutual confidence," IRNA quoted him as saying.
Optimism about an interim agreement had been high when the talks were extended for a third day on Saturday and raised to a ministerial level.
Fabius cited differences over Iran's Arak reactor southeast of Tehran, which could produce enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons a year once it goes online.
He also said there was disagreement over efforts to limit Iran's uranium enrichment to levels that would require substantial further enriching before they could be used as the fissile core of a nuclear weapon.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal pointed to "rather large cohesion" among the negotiators and said France wanted "the international community to see a serious change in the climate" of talks with Iran.
"There have been years of talks that have led to nothing," Nadal said, alluding to the need for tough terms on Iran.
Iran, which denies any interest in nuclear weapons, currently runs more than 10,000 centrifuges that have created tons of fuel-grade material that can be further enriched to arm nuclear warheads.
It also has nearly 440 pounds (200 kilograms) of higher-enriched uranium in a form that can be turned into weapons much more quickly. Experts say 550 pounds (250 kilograms) of that 20 percent-enriched uranium are needed to produce a single warhead.
Iran says it expects Arak, the plutonium producing reactor, to be completed and go online sometime next year. It would need additional facilities to reprocess the plutonium into weapons-grade material, and the U.N's nuclear agency monitoring Iran's atomic activities says it has seen no evidence of such a project.
Fabius said Iran is opposed to suspending work on Arak while nuclear negotiations go on in an attempt to reach a first-stage agreement, then a comprehensive final deal limiting Tehran's atomic work. He said that "for us" suspension was absolutely necessary, but it was unclear if that meant France was alone in seeing the issue as non-negotiable or whether he was speaking for the rest of the negotiating group.
Iran also is being asked to blend down "a great part of this stock at 20 percent, to 5 percent," Fabius said. Uranium enriched to 5 percent is considered reactor fuel grade and upgrading it to weapons-level takes much longer than for 20 percent enriched uranium.
Fabius suggested that the six powers were looking for an Iranian commitment to cap future enrichment at 5 percent.
Kerry and his European counterparts arrived in Geneva on Friday with the talks at a critical stage following a full day of negotiations Thursday, and he said some obstacles remained in the way of any agreement offering sanctions reductions for nuclear concessions.
The presence of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Chinese deputy foreign minister provided fresh hope for at least an interim deal.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Friday that any agreement in the making was a "bad deal" that gave Iran a pass by offering to lift sanctions for cosmetic concessions that he said left intact Tehran's nuclear weapons-making ability. Israel is strongly critical of any deal that even slightly lifts sanctions unless Iran is totally stripped of technology that can make nuclear arms.
The White House said Friday that President Barack Obama called Netanyahu to update him on the ongoing talks and that Obama affirmed he's still committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The White House said Obama and Netanyahu would stay in close contact.
On Friday, Kerry tempered reports of progress, warning of "important gaps" that must be overcome. But Lavrov's deputy, Sergei Ryabov, was quoted then as saying that Moscow expects them to produce a "lasting result expected by the international community."
The talks primarily focus on the size and output of Iran's enrichment program, which can create both reactor fuel and weapons-grade material suitable for a nuclear bomb. Iran insists it is pursuing only nuclear energy, medical treatments and research, but the U.S. and its allies fear that Iran could turn this material into the fissile core of nuclear warheads.