Iran Nuclear Talks Mired in Details of Enrichment, Arak

Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program extended into a fifth day as foreign ministers grappled with the same issues that blocked an accord in two previous rounds, and there were conflicting reports of their progress in Iranian media.

The Fars news agency said there’s no agreement yet and talks were continuing, citing Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi. U.S. diplomats also said the negotiations were ongoing. Minutes earlier, the Iranian news agency ISNA said an agreement had been reached, citing unidentified diplomats close to the negotiations.

Araghchi earlier had told reporters that the sides were still divided over two issues. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the ministers, who joined the talks yesterday, are “not here because things are necessarily finished. We’re here because they’re difficult.”

The differences concern Iran’s uranium-enrichment program and its construction of a heavy-water reactor at Arak, according to diplomats who asked not to be identified because of the talks’ sensitivity. Araghchi said Iran won’t sign an accord that doesn’t recognize its right to enrich.

Negotiators are seeking to end the decade-long conflict that has cast the specter of war over Iran’s nuclear work. Israel, which has denounced the proposed Geneva deal, and the U.S. have warned they will use force to stop Iran’s nuclear progress if diplomacy doesn’t work. The Islamic Republic, which holds the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves, denies charges it’s seeking to build nuclear weapons, and is demanding the easing of sanctions that have crippled its economy.

Enrichment Gap

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who joined Hague and their counterparts from Russia, France, Germany and China in Geneva, is due to leave for London today. Araghchi said talks won’t extend beyond midday local time.

The accord under discussion would freeze some of Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief. The offer discussed in earlier rounds would ease curbs on trade in gold, petrochemicals, cars and aircraft parts and allow access to some frozen assets. An interim agreement would permit six months to seek a more comprehensive deal.

In the run-up to the current talks, there were signs that some of the differences between the sides over enrichment may have been narrowing.

Two Western diplomats said the issue could be addressed without explicitly granting Iran enrichment rights. While Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said last week there’s no need for formal recognition because the right is self-evident in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iranian officials yesterday said no agreement would be acceptable if Iran’s enrichment rights weren’t included in it.

Tougher Position

The other dispute concerns the Arak reactor, which could produce plutonium for weapons. France helped delay an accord at the last meeting by insisting that its construction be halted. United Nations monitors reported Nov. on 14 that Iran had stopped adding key elements to the facility.

One of the Western diplomats said the U.S. has taken a tougher position on Arak at this week’s meeting.

Adding to pressure for a deal this weekend is concern that opponents of the plan in the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran will escalate their efforts to undermine an accord if one isn’t reached now. The current round of talks is the third in six weeks.

Israel has warned that it’s prepared to strike unilaterally against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and Trade and Industry Minister Naftali Bennett said yesterday that “a bad deal definitely increases the need for action.”

U.S. lawmakers from both parties have pledged measures to tighten sanctions on Iran, while hardliners in the Islamic Republic say the proposed accord involves too many concessions.

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