Iran and six world powers began a new round of talks in Vienna on Tuesday aimed at settling the dispute over Tehran's nuclear program by late July, despite wide differences over how to attain that goal.
The other six countries – the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia – want Iran to scale back its uranium enrichment activity so it will remain unable to quickly produce an atomic bomb, if it ever decided to try. Iran says its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, and wants sanctions lifted.
Chief negotiators from Iran and the six powers started the two-day meeting at the U.N. complex in Vienna, where they have held two previous such sessions since February.
"We are involved in very detailed and substantial negotiations, and we are trying as hard as we can to drive the process forward," Michael Mann, a spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told reporters.
Both sides say they want to start drafting a comprehensive agreement in May, about two months before a July 20 deadline for finalizing the accord. Western officials say, however, that the parties are still far apart on key issues.
"What matters most to us is that there is a good agreement. Clearly we want to make progress as fast as possible but the most important thing is the quality of the agreement," Mann said.
"It has to be a good agreement that everyone is happy with,” he said. “So we will work as hard as we can to achieve that."
Iranian and U.S. negotiators are wary that any deal will face criticism from both countries’ conservative hard-liners, many of whom have been focused on confrontation since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The six nations have agreed internally to have a draft text of an accord by the end of May or early June, one diplomat from the world powers said, adding: "We're still in an exploratory phase ... In the end, things will happen in July."
Iran says its enrichment program is a peaceful bid to generate electricity, and it has ruled out shutting any of its nuclear facilities.
The U.S. and some other Western countries have accused Tehran of working on developing a nuclear bomb capability. Israel has threatened to attack its long-time foe if diplomatic efforts fail. Iran says it is Israel's assumed atomic arsenal that threatens peace and stability in the Middle East.
Issues to be discussed at the April 8-9 meeting included how the United Nations nuclear watchdog would verify whether Iran was meeting its end of any deal, suspected past atomic bomb research by Tehran, and how to deal with U.N. Security Council resolutions on Iran adopted since 2006.
A senior Iranian negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, said major issues discussed in previous meetings – Iran's level of uranium enrichment and a heavy-water nuclear reactor project at Arak – would also be debated.
Refined uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants – Iran's stated purpose – but it can also provide material for a bomb. The Arak reactor, once operational, can yield plutonium, another weapons-usable fissile material. But Iran says it only intends to use it for medical and agricultural research ends.
The goal of the negotiations, begun almost two months ago, is to hammer out a long-term deal to define the permissible scope of Iran's nuclear program in return for an end to sanctions that have hobbled the country's economy.
In November, the two sides agreed an interim accord curbing some Iranian enrichment activities in exchange for some easing of sanctions. This six-month deal, which took effect Jan. 20, was designed to buy time for talks on a final accord.
The talks can be extended by another half-year if both sides agree to do so.
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