LAUSANNE: The United States and Iran resumed negotiations on Thursday aimed at clinching a nuclear deal before a March 31 deadline, and officials close to the talks said some kind of preliminary agreement between Tehran and six powers was possible.
As the talks began, Washington and Tehran took opposing stands on Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen against rebels allied to Iran who are fighting to oust the country’s president, but it was unclear whether this would affect the nuclear talks.
The two sides are seeking a political framework accord by the end of this month that would lay the foundations for a full deal by June 30.
Under a final settlement, Tehran would halt sensitive nuclear work for at least a decade and in exchange, international sanctions on Iran would be lifted. This would aim to end the country’s 12-year nuclear standoff with the West and reduce the risk of another war in the Middle East.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz met their Iranian counterparts, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Atomic Energy Organization chief Ali Akbar Salehi, in the Swiss city of Lausanne.
Earlier, Iranian media quoted Zarif as condemning the Saudi-led military operation against the Shi’ite Muslim Houthi fighters in Yemen, and demanding that it stop.
By contrast, Kerry spoke to the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members on Thursday and welcomed their decision to take action against the Houthis, a senior U.S. official said.
However, neither Kerry nor Zarif responded when asked by a reporter in Lausanne to comment on the air strikes.
Speaking to reporters traveling with Kerry from Washington on Wednesday, a senior State Department official said the six powers – the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – would not rush to complete a framework agreement with Iran just because there was a March 31 deadline.
But the official said the parties had made progress at last week’s inconclusive round of negotiations in Lausanne.
“We very much believe we can get this done by the 31st,” the official said. “We see a path to do that.” The official added, however, that there was no guarantee of success.
Salehi also said a deal was possible but not certain. “It is difficult to forecast whether we can reach a result at this round of talks but we are moving toward reaching a mutual understanding in all technical issues,” he told Iranian state television.
Israel, Saudi Arabia, France and U.S. Congress have all raised concerns that the administration of President Barack Obama might be willing to conclude a deal that would allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability in the future.
The State Department official said: “Any political understanding needs to address in some way all of the elements of a final agreement.”
“We do not know what form this will take … We have always said it needs to have specifics. We will need to communicate as many specifics as possible in some form or fashion (to the public and U.S. Congress).”
Those elements include the different ways to a nuclear weapon, ensuring that it would take Iran at least one year to produce enough high enriched uranium for a single bomb, research and development into advanced centrifuges, transparency measures and monitoring, and sanctions relief for Iran.
FABIUS TO JOIN TALKS
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, opposes the idea of a two-step process. Iranian officials say they fear a written framework accord would curtail Tehran’s negotiating space for the final deal.
Iranian officials have also suggested they could accept some kind of statement or political declaration in Lausanne, as opposed to a formal written agreement.
Officials close to the talks said deep disagreements remained between Tehran and the powers, while divisions had also emerged in recent weeks between the United States and France on what to demand of Tehran. U.S. officials say the six are united.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who last week phoned his negotiation team to tell them to keep a tough line in the talks, will join the talks on Saturday. Other ministers may also arrive at then, officials said.
Iran denies Western allegations it is seeking the capability to procure atomic weapons. But Israel, which is believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, has previously threatened Iran with military attack.
With the Republican-led U.S. Congress threatening to vote on new sanctions against Iran if there is no agreement this month, the Obama administration is pushing hard to secure a deal. Obama has vowed to veto any new sanctions moves.
Other officials said some kind of memorandum of understanding that would satisfy U.S. needs for Congress and Khamenei’s demands was possible by Sunday.
The main obstacle, Western officials say, remains Iran’s refusal to compromise on sanctions, research and development and other issues. Salehi disagreed, saying it was the Western powers who need to compromise.
“Iran has demonstrated its political will and it is up to the other side to take a step forward and show that it has the political will to allow a resolution of the problem,” he was quoted as saying on Iran’s Press TV website.