VIENNA: Iran nuclear talks stalled Friday, casting a shadow on earlier advances and denting hopes that Tehran and six world powers would meet a July 20 target date for a deal meant to curb Iran’s atomic program while ending sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi acknowledged the meeting made “no progress” in its ambitious goal of starting to draft an agreement meant to ease a decade of Western distrust about Tehran’s nuclear agenda in exchange for sanctions relief.
In that, “we failed,” he told reporters. But while saying he was disappointed, he insisted that the result of the three-day talks that ended Friday represented no more than a setback at this point in continuing attempts to reach a deal.
A senior U.S. official – who demanded anonymity under U.S. briefing rules – said there was “great difficulty” in trying to move toward common positions and spoke of “significant” differences. Both Araghchi and the official said further meetings were planned in June, but no dates were announced.
The failure to advance diminished a sense of optimism that had been growing since talks began Feb. 18 on a comprehensive deal. But while diplomats had spoken of some progress before the round that ended Friday, they had also warned of difficult talks ahead on some issues, such as Iran’s enrichment program.
Araghchi said that differences remained on more than a dozen issues, and a Western official with detailed knowledge of the talks said that enrichment was among the most divisive topic.
General differences have long been known. Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, has said publicly that Tehran needs up to 100,000 centrifuges – the enriching machines – for a future nuclear network.
That’s about five times as many as the centrifuges Iran now has standing but idle, 10 times that of the machines actually enriching – and much more than the few thousand that diplomats say the U.S. and its allies are prepared to allow.
Related differences focus on length of constraints on enrichment and other nuclear activities that could be proliferation relevant. The diplomats say the U.S. and other Western countries want decadelong limits, whereas Tehran is pushing only for a few years before all restrictions are lifted.
Other disagreements include how – or whether – the talks should also focus on Iranian missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead and suspicions that Tehran worked secretly on trying to make atomic arms – allegations the Islamic Republic denies.
Diplomats said before this week’s round that there was tentative agreement on some topics, including rough consensus on the need to re-engineer a partially built reactor so that it would produce less waste plutonium – material that also can be used for the core of a nuclear weapon.
But Araghchi’s remarks indicated that the devil was in the details of putting any general ideas on what needed to be done into the form of a precisely worded unambiguous text.
And he suggested more discussion might be needed between his country and the six – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – before drafting actually began. Such delays could push negotiations past the July 20 target date, but the sides have agreed they could be extended by up to six months.
“In previous rounds of negotiations, we only had brainstorming sessions,” he said. “The goal of this round was to draft an agreement [and] we feel differences are still there. And we should wait for the time when ... the positions are closer.”