High-level talks over Iran’s nuclear program concluded Saturday with no deal on the table, dashing earlier hopes of a historic breakthrough this weekend in relations between Tehran and western powers.
After a late night session during the third day of diplomatic negotiations in Geneva, French Foreign minister Laurent Fabius emerged and broke the news that no agreement had been reached.
He added that there were “still some questions to be addressed.”
But others involved seemed intent to put a positive spin on the negotiations, despite the failure to reach agreement.
Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, said concrete progress had been made.
Meanwhile, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said it was a "good meeting" and that it had been "a very productive three days." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry likewise held out hope that an agreement could be struck in the near future.
"There is no question in my mind that we are closer now, as we leave Geneva, than when we came," he told reporters.
It was also announced that talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries (the five members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany) would resume on Nov. 20. But it later emerged that the meeting would reconvene at the 'political directors' level and would not include foreign ministers. Such a downgrade in the level of talks could further dampen optimism of an imminent deal over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
But the mood was in apparent contrast to late Friday, when hopes had been high that a potential deal was on the cards.
Chances of an agreement diminished throughout Saturday. It is thought that the latest snag revolves around Iran's apparent refusal to suspend work on a plutonium-producing reactor and downgrade its stockpile of higher-enriched uranium.
A Western diplomat in Geneva for the talks told The Associated Press 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.
Foreign Minister Fabius' earlier told France-Inter radio that he was not satisfied with several points of a proposed deal from Tehran and that he did not want France to be part of a “con game”.
The comments were the first to provide some specifics on the obstacles at the current round of talks. He spoke by telephone from Geneva, where he, Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and counterparts from Britain, and Germany negotiating with Iran consulted on how to resolve the obstacles at the talks.
"There are several points that ... we're not satisfied with compared to the initial text," Fabius said. He did not specify, but the totality of his comments suggested France thought a final draft of any first-step deal was too favorable to Iran.
Fabius mentioned 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.
"As I speak to you, I cannot say there is any certainty that we can conclude," Fabius said on France Inter radio, stressing that Paris could not accept a "sucker's deal." A subsequent late-night session was not sufficient for the two sides to reach agreement on the way forward and negotiations broke up shortly after midnight.
Prior to the late night session, Zarif had indicated that even if no deal was reached on Saturday, then fresh talks would take place within 10 days.
"If we reach a result by the end of today, it's reached. If not, the process will continue in one week or 10 days," Zarif told reporters.
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.
Prior to the late-night session, which proved fruitless, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the talks have achieved "very good progress" but much more needed to be agreed.
"We are very conscious of the fact that real momentum has built up in these negotiations," he told reporters. "So we have to do everything we can to seize the moment."
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.