VIENNA: Six world powers and Iran made a “good start” in talks in Vienna toward reaching a final settlement in the decade-old standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program, but conceded their plan to get a deal in the coming months was very ambitious.
By late July, Western governments hope to hammer out an accord that would lay to rest their suspicions that Iran is seeking the capability to make a nuclear bomb, an aim it denies, while Tehran wants economic sanctions lifted.
Wide differences remain on how this could be achieved, although the two sides said Thursday that during meetings this week in the Austrian capital they agreed on an agenda and timetable for the talks on such an accord.
“We have had three very productive days during which we have identified all of the issues we need to address in reaching a comprehensive and final agreement,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters.
“There is a lot to do. It won’t be easy but we have made a good start,” said Ashton, who speaks on behalf of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.
Senior diplomats from the six nations, as well as Ashton and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, will meet again on March 17, also in Vienna, and have a series of further discussions ahead of the July deadline.
In the interim, the head of the U.S. delegation will travel to Israel, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates this week to discuss the course of the negotiations so far, the U.S. State Department said Thursday.
“Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman will be traveling to Jerusalem, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Dubai Feb. 21-25 for consultations with their governments and representatives of the Gulf Cooperation Council following P5+1 negotiations with Iran in Vienna,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
Tehran denies its nuclear program has any latent military purposes and has signalled repeatedly it would resist dismantling its nuclear installations as part of any deal.
“I can assure you that no one had, or will have, the opportunity to impose anything on Iran during the talks,” Zarif told reporters after the Vienna meeting.
A senior U.S. official who asked not to identified cautioned that their exchanges would be “difficult” but the sides were committed to reach a deal soon.
“This will be a complicated, difficult and lengthy process. We will take the time required to do it right,” the official said. “We will continue to work in a deliberate and concentrated manner to see if we can get that job done.”
As part of the diplomatic process, Ashton will go to Tehran for talks on March 9-10.
A diplomatic source clarified that the two sides did not produce a text of the agreed framework for future negotiations or detailed agenda for upcoming meetings, rather only agreeing a broad range of subjects to be addressed in coming months.
While modest in scope, the arrangement is an early step forward in the elusive search for a settlement that could ward off the danger of a wider war in the Middle East, reshape the regional power balance and open up big new trade opportunities with Iran, an oil-producing market of 76 million people.
For Iran, a halt to sanctions imposed by the United States, European governments and the United Nations would end years of isolation and lift its battered economy.
The six powers’ overarching goal is to extend the time Iran would need to make enough fissile material and assemble equipment for a nuclear bomb, and to make such a move easier to detect before it became a fait accompli.
Iran’s unfinished heavy water Arak reactor, which could yield plutonium for bombs, and its underground Fordow uranium enrichment site will be among key sticking points in the talks.
“We have begun to see some areas of agreement as well as areas in which we will have to work though very difficult issues,” the senior U.S. official said.
The official declined to respond specifically to Iran’s suggestions that its ballistic missile program, which the West worries could be a way to deliver an atomic bomb to its target, would not be up for negotiation.
“All of the issues of concern to the international community regarding Iran’s nuclear program are on the table,” the official said.
“And all of our concerns must be met in order to get a comprehensive agreement … Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
Iranian ballistic missile work is banned under United Nations Security Council sanctions targeting the nuclear program.
“Nothing except Iran’s nuclear activities will be discussed in the talks with the [six powers], and we have agreed on it,” Zarif said, according to the official IRNA news agency.