Iran talks: Amid speculation of progress, differences remain

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif says the country's enrichment program 'will continue' regardless of any agreement

Secretary of State Kerry, left, arrived in Geneva Saturday to participate in negotiations. Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, right, reiterated that enrichment is Iran's "inalienable right."
Denis Balibouse/AFP/Getty Images;Martial Trezzini/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Geneva on Saturday to take part in talks on Iran's nuclear program, joining foreign ministers from five other world powers, in an indication that ongoing negotiations between Tehran and China, Russia, France, Britain, Germany and the United States could yield an interim agreement. However, despite widespread speculation that a deal could come soon, Iranian negotiators and the foreign ministers of Britain and Germany cautioned that differences still remain. 

Kerry's trip was announced Friday after diplomats in the Swiss city said a major sticking point in negotiations on a deal — under which Tehran would curb its contested atomic activities — may have been overcome. 

But Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi expressed doubt that the parties would reach a deal Saturday. He did not say whether talks would continue for a fifth day in Geneva. Negotiators have been working since Wednesday to find language acceptable to Iran and its negotiating partners. 

"We are close to a deal but still differences over two-three issues remain," Araqchi said. 

British Foreign Secretary William Hague cautioned that a preliminary accord to turn the page on years of confrontation with Iran was not yet guaranteed, and said there was still much work to do to bridge remaining differences. 

"We (foreign ministers) are not here because things are necessarily finished," Hague told reporters. "There is a huge amount of agreement ... (But) the remaining gaps are important, and we will be turning our attention to those over coming hours. They remain very difficult negotiations."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle echoed those sentiments, saying, "It's not a done deal." 

"There's a realistic chance, but there's a lot of work to do," Westerwelle told reporters.  

On Friday, a diplomat in Geneva for the talks said some progress was being made on a key sticking point: Iran's claim to a right to produce nuclear fuel. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat, have met repeatedly since Wednesday to try to resolve that and other differences.

Kerry, Hague and Westerwelle joined Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the meeting Saturday.

"The fact that foreign ministers have come may reflect the gravity of the negotiations and we hope that this attendance reflects the political will and determination for an agreement," Zarif said.

The last round of talks ended Nov. 10 with no deal, even after Kerry and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and Russia, and a Chinese deputy foreign minister, flew in and attempted to bridge differences.

Meanwhile, the State Department announced Saturday said that Kerry will travel to London on Sunday for a meeting with Hague to discuss Syria, Iran and Middle East peace negotiations. 

Right to enrich?

Zarif indicated last weekend that Iran was ready to sign a deal that did not expressly state its right to enrich uranium, raising hopes that a deal could be sealed at the current Geneva round, given Western skepticism over Iranian enrichment.

On Wednesday, however, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said his country would never compromise on "red lines." Since then, Tehran has reverted to its original stance: that the six powers must recognize this activity as Iran's right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), despite strong opposition by Israel and within the U.S. Congress.

On Saturday, Zarif referred to the country's "red lines." 

"The program that Iran has, an enrichment program that Iran has, will continue with any agreement, and that is our red line: that any agreement should include the enrichment program for Iran," Zarif said. "We will not accept anything else, other than that. We have the right, as I said, the right needs to be respected. It's an inalienable right."

A senior Iranian negotiator said his country's claim did not need to be explicitly recognized in any initial deal, despite Khamenei's comment. He did suggest, however, that language on that point remained contentious, along with other differences.

The diplomat said work was proceeding on a compromise along the lines of what the Iranian negotiator said — avoiding a direct reference to any country's right to enrich but still giving enough leeway for Iran to accept it. Both he and the Iranian envoy demanded anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss the closed negotiations.

Iran says it is enriching only for reactor fuel, medical uses and research, and its Supreme Leader has issued previous fatwas, or religious edicts, against nuclear weapons. But as the technology can also produce nuclear warhead material, many countries have long worried that Iran's clandestine program is a cover for possibly nefarious designs. In addition to discussion about enrichment in the current round of talks, sanctions relief is at issue.

The U.S. and its allies have signaled that they are ready to ease some sanctions in place against Iran in return for a first-step deal that starts to put limits on Tehran's nuclear program. But they insist that the most severe penalties — on oil exports and the banking sector — will remain until the two sides reach a comprehensive agreement to minimize Iran's nuclear-arms-making capacity.

Roadblocks remain the same

Another issue that has divided the parties is differences of opinion within the six powers negotiating with Iran.

France has taken a harder line than other Western powers, and has repeatedly urged the six-nation group not to make too many compromises with Tehran. Many commentators believe that France's more stringent position prevented an agreement during the last round of talks.

But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed hope that a deal could be made, telling reporters in Paris that he was in contact with the negotiators in Geneva. 

"As long as there is no agreement, there is no agreement. You know our position ... it's a position based on firmness, but at the same time a position of hope that we can reach a deal," Fabius said.

Even if there were a unified front on negotiations, however, the talks have their critics.

Israel continued its public campaign of criticizing the offer of a sanctions rollback for Iran, voicing its conviction that all the move would achieve would be to give Iran more time to master nuclear technology and amass potential bomb fuel.

"We think it's not a useful agreement. Perhaps even damaging," Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin told Israel Radio.

Separately, the U.S. has only limited flexibility in any negotiations because of skepticism in Congress about the benefits of cutting any deal with Tehran under the current negotiating framework, which includes the potential easing of sanctions.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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