Iran Talks Enter Critical Phase as France Signals Unity

Diplomats seeking to reach an interim accord to ease a decade-long standoff over Iran’s nuclear program began a critical phase of talks today, an Iranian negotiator said.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Geneva, according to an EU statement. U.S. and Iranian negotiators were also set to have direct talks this morning, according to the U.S. delegation.

“All will depend on the Ashton talks with Zarif,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told reporters in the Swiss city. The six world powers Iran is negotiating with need a common stance at this “critical juncture,” he said.

Envoys are trying to strike a first-step accord that would give negotiators a six-month window in which to win a broader agreement over Iran’s nuclear work. Israel and the U.S. have said they’re prepared to strike Iran, which controls the world’s No. 4 proven oil reserves, to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The Persian Gulf nation of 80 million people denies it’s seeking a nuclear bomb and wants trade sanctions lifted.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who drew rebukes from negotiators at the last round of talks after he raised last-minute objections, today told France24 radio that there are no differences between France and its allies this time over the way forward with Iran.

“For the moment, the Iranians don’t think they need to accept the position of the six,” Fabius said. “I hope they will accept. The text is supported by all six.”

‘Differences Narrow’

The accord under consideration would deliver Iran limited sanctions relief from trade in gold, autos, petrochemicals and civilian aircraft parts in exchange for a verified halt to some elements of its nuclear activities, according to diplomats.

Foreign ministers from the U.K. and Germany said they were optimistic that a deal may be reached this week. U.S. diplomats said disagreements persist and it’s not certain they can agree a pact that soon.

“The differences that remain between the parties are narrow and I believe they can be bridged with political will and commitment,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said yesterday, citing “an historic opportunity to build agreement on how to curb nuclear proliferation.”

The Geneva talks resumed yesterday following a 10-day break. The last round of negotiations failed to seal an accord and diplomats returned to their capitals to consult leaders. Lawmakers in both the U.S. and Iran have criticized the proposed deal, urging a tougher stand and fewer concessions by their side.

Reactor Halt

A U.S. official involved in the talks dismissed concerns expressed by Israeli leaders and some American lawmakers that the sanctions regime weakening Iran’s economy will collapse if any trade bans are lifted now as part of a first-stage deal.

UN monitors verified last week that Iran had halted expansion of its most sensitive nuclear work on a planned heavy-water reactor and new-generation centrifuges for uranium enrichment after Hassan Rouhani became president in August. Iran’s declared nuclear facilities are monitored by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that materials aren’t diverted to weapons use.

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