TEHRAN: EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton cautioned Sunday that reaching a long-term nuclear deal with Iran would be “difficult,” as she visited Tehran to tackle thorny issues including human rights and the conflict in Syria.
Achieving a comprehensive nuclear agreement will be “difficult, challenging,” Ashton said during a joint news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. “There’s no guarantee we’ll succeed.”
Ashton arrived in Tehran late Saturday and held separate talks Sunday with Zarif, President Hassan Rouhani and Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani.
The visit is the first by a European Union foreign policy chief to Iran since 2008 and comes after Tehran in November signed an interim agreement to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief.
“I think this interim agreement is really important but not as important as the comprehensive agreement that we are currently engaged in,” Ashton said.
Zarif sounded a more upbeat tone about the prospects of the nuclear talks, saying: “With desire, commitment and willingness a comprehensive deal can be reached ... in four or five months or even less.”
The interim nuclear accord signed in Geneva took effect on Jan. 20 and allows for further negotiations aimed at reaching a comprehensive deal within six months.
Ashton’s visit to Tehran comes ahead of the next round of talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group of countries – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – in Vienna on March 18. Ashton is the world powers’ lead negotiator in the talks.
“Iran is determined to reach an agreement,” Zarif said. “We have shown good faith, we have shown political will and ... we have done our side. Now it is up to the other side to show the same goodwill and determination ... to reach a mutually acceptable agreement.”
But he added that Iran would only accept an accord “that is respectful, that respects the rights of the Iranian people.”
Iran has repeatedly denied allegations by the West and Israel that it seeks to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran insists that its nuclear work is restricted to power generation, scientific research and medical treatment.
“We have no intention to seek nuclear weapons,” the Iranian minister reiterated Sunday.
Among the issues Ashton raised during her talks in Tehran was the conflict in Syria, where Iran supports the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad.
Though both Zarif and Ashton acknowledged that the conflict figured into their discussions, neither revealed details about the closed-door talks on the 3-year-old civil war.“Growing radicalism and violence in Syria is an escalating threat to all countries and it’s necessary to cooperate against that,” Zarif said.
“Political dialogue is the only solution,” he added, emphasizing “the key role of the Syrian people in determining their own political future.”
For her part, Ashton said the talks marked an “opportunity to discuss issues of interest and concern to us in the region, to have an opportunity to talk about the terrible situation in Syria.”
The two said they also discussed combating terrorism and drug trafficking, as well as the conflict in Afghanistan.
Ashton said she also spoke with Zarif about “the potential of human rights dialogue in the future,” adding that she was “proud” to have met with local women activists Saturday night for International Women’s Day.
“I think it is important to ... assess for myself the level of Iran’s desire for engagement and to be able to address some of those issues that ... we are particularly concerned about,” Ashton said after meeting six Iranian female activists in Tehran.
Iranian officials said Ashton would visit historical sites in the central city of Isfahan Monday before departing Iran.
As Ashton visited Tehran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he hoped she pressed Iranian officials about the ship Israel seized Wednesday carrying what it said were rockets sent by Iran to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Tehran describes the allegations as “baseless fabrications.”
“I want to ask her if she has asked her Iranian hosts about the arms shipment to the terror organizations. And if she has not asked, why has she not done so,” Netanyahu said in public remarks to his Cabinet Sunday.
“I think that it would be proper for the international community to give its opinion regarding Iran’s true policy, not its propaganda.”
In a Twitter post last week, Zarif rejected Israel’s claim about the intercepted ship as “failed lies” timed to coincide with the annual conference of the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby in Washington.