Ashton’s First Iran Visit Builds on Nuclear Talks Momentum

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, world powers’ lead negotiator with Iran, met with top officials in Tehran to build on efforts to parlay an interim nuclear deal into a final accord.

“This interim agreement is really, really important but not as important as the comprehensive agreement that we are currently engaged in,” Ashton, on her first visit to Iran as the top EU diplomat, told reporters today after meeting with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. “Difficult, challenging, there’s no guarantee we’ll succeed,” she said, before heading into talks with President Hassan Rouhani.

An agreement easing international sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear work expires in July, with the option of a six-month extension.

“Iran is determined to reach an agreement,” Zarif said at the news conference. “Iran will only accept a solution that is respectful, that respects the rights of the Iranian people. We have no intention to seek nuclear weapons.”

Ashton, who leads talks with Iran on behalf of the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China, arrived in Iran yesterday for a two-day visit. The final deal the sides are negotiating is meant to banish concerns Iran may develop nuclear weapons in exchange for an end to sanctions. Iran denies it seeks to build nuclear arms.

Giving Chance

U.S. President Barack Obama “would like to see diplomacy work, so we’re going to give that a chance,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said in an interview in Abu Dhabi today. “The burden of proof” is on the Iranians, to show “that the use of nuclear capacity is for peaceful purposes,” Pritzker added.

In a Feb. 20 agreement, Iran and world powers agreed Ashton and Zarif would hold official talks monthly. The next session is set to start March 17 in Vienna.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a jab at Ashton’s mission to Tehran, asking whether she brought up Israel’s March 6 seizure of a ship it said was carrying rockets from Iran to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

“I would like to ask her if she asked her Iranian hosts about this shipment of weapons for terrorist organizations, and if not, why not,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet today in Jerusalem, according to an e-mailed statement.

“I think that it would be proper for the international community to give its opinion regarding Iran’s true policy, not its propaganda,” said the Israeli leader, who has called Iran’s nuclear program an “existential threat” to his nation and has criticized the interim deal.

In a Twitter post last week, Zarif called the allegation “failed lies” timed to coincide with the annual conference of the pro-Israel Aipac lobby in the U.S.

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