Iran and world powers set a schedule for five months of negotiations in a race to agree on a definitive nuclear accord before their interim deal expires in July.
Government experts from the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran will try to address the most contentious aspects of Iran’s disputed nuclear activities, said European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who leads talks with Iran on behalf of the six. Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet monthly, with the next gathering set for Vienna on March 17. Before that, Ashton will make a first visit to Tehran, Zarif said.
Both sides used the talks in the Austrian capital to probe each other’s willingness to compromise. Even so, reaching a comprehensive accord that puts international concerns to rest and is acceptable to Iran is something that both U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have cautioned may be out of reach.
“There is a lot to do,” Ashton told reporters of the efforts to address all the international community’s concerns before July. “It won’t be easy, but we’ve made a good start.” Standing at her side, Zarif echoed that message: “It will be difficult, but we, both parties, believe that this was a good start for this difficult task.”
U.S. officials want Iran to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure and abide by United Nations restrictions on missile development. Iran has said it won’t break down nuclear facilities and that its missile program isn’t up for discussion.
After three days of meetings, the U.S. has begun to see areas of agreement, according to a member of the American negotiating team who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
The talks were the first since a temporary accord was signed in Geneva Nov. 24 to curb Iran’s program, including its 20-percent uranium enrichment and work on a heavy-water reactor. In exchange, Iran, which has the world’s fourth-biggest proven oil reserves, was granted limited sanctions relief worth as much as $7 billion, though core oil and banking restrictions were kept in place.
The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of seeking nuclear weapons capabilities, while the Islamic Republic says its program is for civilian energy and medical research. U.S. negotiators will now visit Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to brief key Mideast partners.
While the U.S. insists talks need to include possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear activities as well as its missile program, Zarif told Iranian reporters that “our military matters are outside these negotiations and so are our scientific matters. There may be some differences on this, but we have made our stance clear.”
“There is a still a huge mismatch in expectations from the two sides about what a final deal should look like,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an interview. “What’s more likely is an extension of the interim deal” beyond July.
Technical discussions are expected to set limits on the scope of Iran’s uranium-enrichment work, examine the utility of a plutonium-producing reactor and guarantee broader access to facilities by United Nations inspectors, U.S. officials have said.
Iran wants sanctions lifted that have slashed its main source of revenue -- oil earnings -- in half since 2012. Rouhani has staked his presidency on improving ties with the outside world and reviving his country’s economy.
Daryl Kimball, president of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said the framework announcement was a step toward preventing Iran from having the potential to build nuclear weapons.
That “makes it more likely the two sides can arrive at a realistic, comprehensive deal in the next six to 12 months,” he said in an e-mail.
Critics warned Iran may exploit the positive mood to lure foreign businesses back to Tehran.
If the easing of trade curbs sparks a modest economic recovery in Iran, that may fuel “concerns that the United States and its partners are losing critical negotiating leverage to persuade Tehran to make meaningful nuclear concessions,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has pressed Congress to adopt tougher sanctions.