VIENNA: Six world powers and Iran launched a decisive phase of diplomacy Wednesday to draft a lasting accord that would curb Tehran’s contested nuclear activity in exchange for a phased end to sanctions that have hobbled the Iranian economy.
After three months of discussing expectations rather than negotiating possible compromises, the sides are to set about devising a package meant to end years of antagonism and curtail the risk of a wider Middle East war with global repercussions.
A Western official close to the talks said Wednesday that “progress is being made but all pieces have to fit together.”
“Nothing is agreed yet,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Washington’s estrangement from Iran could ease, improving international stability, if a deal were done but U.S. and other Western officials warned against unwarranted optimism given persisting, critical differences between the sides.
“We’ve spent the last couple of rounds putting all of the issues on the table, seeing where there may be points of agreement, where there may be gaps. There are some very significant gaps,” a senior U.S. official said Tuesday.
“It’s not that there aren’t solutions to those gaps; there are. But getting to them is another matter.”
To get a deal, the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany will want Iran to agree to dramatically cut back its uranium enrichment program to remove any risk that it could lead to the making of atomic bombs, while Iran will want them to eliminate sanctions against its oil-based economy.
Diplomats from both sides have said they want to resolve all sticking points about issues such as Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium and the future of its nuclear facilities, as well as the timeline of sanctions relief, by a July 20 deadline.
After that, an interim deal they struck last November expires and its extension would probably complicate talks.
A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who coordinates diplomacy with Iran on behalf of the six, said negotiators held a “useful initial discussion” Wednesday morning and would hold coordination meetings later in the day.
“We are now hoping to move to a new phase ... in which we will start pulling together what the outline of an agreement could be. All sides are highly committed,” Michael Mann said.
Looming in the background of the talks have been threats by Israel, widely believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear weaponry but which sees Iran as an existential threat, to attack Iranian nuclear installations if it deems diplomacy futile in containing Tehran’s atomic abilities and potential.
U.S. President Barack Obama has not ruled the last-ditch option of military action either.
Broadly, the six powers want to ensure the Iranian program is curtailed enough so that it would take Iran a long time to assemble nuclear bomb components if it chose to do so, and would be detected with intrusive inspections before it was too late. Iran denies accusations of having nuclear weapons aspirations, saying it wants only peaceful atomic energy.
Central to this issue will be the number of centrifuge machines, which potentially can enrich uranium to bomb-fuel quality, that Iran would be permitted to operate.
Iran’s research and development of new nuclear technologies and the amount of stockpiled enriched uranium it may keep will also be crucial and likely difficult to negotiate. Refined uranium can be used as fuel in nuclear power plants or in weapons if purified to a high enough level.
“Halting research and development of uranium enrichment has never been up for negotiation, and we would not have accepted it either,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said.
Diplomats say Iran, rather than deactivating centrifuges, wants to expand its enrichment program, saying it needs to do this to fuel a planned network of nuclear power plants.
Diplomats have signaled some progress may have been made during three rounds of expert-level talks since February on one of the thorniest issues – the future of Iran’s planned Arak heavy-water reactor, which Western states worry could prove a source of plutonium for nuclear bomb fuel once operational.
But the U.S. official cautioned that some media reports about progress reached up until now were going too far. “I’ve read a lot of the optimism you’ve written,” the official said. “It’s gotten way out of control.”