VIENNA: The U.S. and Iran fired opening salvos Wednesday in a stormy Vienna ahead of a final round of nuclear talks with chances of a historic deal by a July 20 deadline on a knife-edge.
The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany want Iran to scale down its nuclear activities in order to ease long-held fears that Tehran might develop atomic weapons.
Iran, subject to damaging U.N. and Western sanctions, insists its nuclear program is purely peaceful and wants to expand parts of it.
A sixth round of talks officially starts Thursday. It could potentially last until July 20, when an interim deal agreed in November expires, although this could be extended by up to six months.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Wednesday that his country and world powers had a “unique opportunity to make history” by agreeing on a nuclear deal, as talks enter a crucial final round.
Speaking on a video uploaded to YouTube, Zarif said forging a deal would “end an unnecessary crisis that has distracted us from addressing together our common challenges, such as the horrifying events of past few weeks in Iraq.”
He claimed an agreement could have been reached in 2005 when he had been nuclear negotiator, but that the administration of then-U.S. president George W. Bush “torpedoed the deal. They then opted for pressure and sanctions. For eight years.”
But he said sanctions “didn’t bring the Iranian people to kneel in submission. And it will not now nor in the future.”
“We are trying to reach a deal,” he added. “Not a good deal or a bad deal, but a doable and lasting deal.”
“We are willing to take concrete measures to guarantee that our nuclear program will always remain peaceful. We still have time to put an end to the myth that Iran is seeking to build a bomb,” Zarif added.
Western powers and Israel have long suspected Iran of using its civil nuclear energy program as a cover for developing weapons capability, a claim the Islamic Republic has consistently denied.
Writing in the Washington Post, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the negotiations on what would be a fiendishly complex deal constituted “a choice for Iran’s leaders.”
“They can agree to the steps necessary to assure the world that their country’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful ... or they can squander a historic opportunity,” Kerry wrote.
The P5+1 powers have proposed to Iran a “series of reasonable, verifiable and easily achievable measures,” he said.
“What will Iran choose? Despite many months of discussion, we don’t know yet,” he said. “What we do know is that their public optimism ... has not been matched, to date, by their positions they have articulated behind closed doors.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that in the face of “significant” differences, a deal was “far from certain.” Iran needs to be “realistic” about the steps it should take, he said.
“This is a crucial moment in international efforts to resolve one of the most challenging foreign policy issues of our day,” he said in a statement.
One such position is thought to be on the central issue of enrichment, the process rendering uranium suitable for power generation but also, when it is highly purified, for a bomb.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last month that Iran must slash the number of centrifuge enrichment machines to several hundred from the almost 20,000 it currently has.
But Kelsey Davenport, an Arms Control Association analyst, was upbeat, saying there was “considerable political will” for a deal since it is in the interests of both sides.
“There is a lot of time left for diplomacy and a good comprehensive nuclear agreement is within reach, despite significant gaps between the two sides on core issues.”