VIENNA: Racing against the clock, nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers appeared to be tough going Thursday, with both sides warning of major differences as they tried to draft an accord.
The hoped-for agreement would see Iran scale back its nuclear program in order to ease fears it is seeking atomic weapons.
Iran, which has seen its relations with the West thaw somewhat since the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, wants painful U.N. and Western sanctions lifted. It denies seeking a nuclear bomb.
On the fourth day of the fifth round of talks in Vienna, Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany started haggling over the wording of a deal, officials said.
But beyond agreeing a title for the accord, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that “fundamental differences” were dividing the two sides and that the talks were “very difficult.”
Top Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi said they were “drafting the text of a final agreement, not the big issues but the general framework and the introduction.”
A Western diplomat said that Iran was refusing to budge on most issues and echoed that drafting language in the text on the “complex issues” had not begun.
“It is worrying that there is no evolution on the part of the Iranians on most subjects,” the diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity, with differences on key issue uranium enrichment “major.”
Enrichment is front and center of Western concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as the process can produce both fuel for nuclear power plants and, when highly purified, the core of an atomic bomb.
The West wants Iran to slash the number of centrifuges – machines that enrich uranium – from 20,000, but Tehran wants to install many more in order, it says, to facilitate future nuclear plants.
Other thorny issues include the duration of the mooted accord, the pace of any sanctions relief and a reactor being built at Arak that might give Iran weapons-grade plutonium.
It was unclear whether the talks would wrap up Thursday or continue into a fifth day.
Mark Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. State Department official now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said putting off discussion of key issues was “hardly promising.”
“But at this stage it is not surprising. If there is going to be a breakthrough on the key issues, it won’t come until the last moment,” Fitzpatrick told AFP.
Araqchi told Iran’s state-run IRNA agency Wednesday that choosing to push back a July 20 deadline for an accord – when an interim deal struck in November expires – “won’t be a catastrophe.”
But U.S. President Barack Obama is thought to be less keen, seeking ahead of November midterm US elections to silence accusations that the talks are merely giving Iran time to inch ever closer to the bomb.
Complicating the process is the shared interest of Washington and Shiite Iran in seeing a lightning onslaught by Sunni rebels in Iraq stopped in its tracks.
U.S. and Iranian officials briefly discussed the crisis on the sidelines in Vienna Monday, although Washington said this would not be repeated.
A senior aide to Rouhani, his Chief of Staff Mohammad Nahavandian, appeared Wednesday to say that success in the nuclear talks could pave the way for U.S.-Iranian cooperation in Iraq.
“If that comes to a final resolution, then there might be opportunities for other issues to be discussed,” Nahavandian said in Norway.
In Israel, which is assumed to have nuclear weapons itself and has not ruled out bombing Iran, a minister Thursday expressed fears that the crisis may lead Washington to make concessions in Vienna.