Iran Nuclear Talks Enter Critical Stage as Expiry Looms

Diplomats seeking to avert the decade-long threat of war over Iran’s nuclear work will meet for talks this week with the clock ticking on attempts to resolve competing demands.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif convene the latest round of weeklong talks in Vienna today. Their aim is to reach a long-term accord before an interim pact expires on July 20.

“The negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 is now in a very critical stage,” Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said June 12 in Rome, referring to the six world powers with which the Persian Gulf country is pursuing talks. “All of us know that time is not our friend.”

Negotiations stumbled last month when participants failed to begin drafting the text of a deal because of differences over how much uranium-enrichment capacity Iran should be allowed to maintain. Underscoring the importance of the current round, Iranian diplomats held one-on-one talks in Geneva last week with counterparts from four of the six world powers: the U.S., France, Russia and Germany.

While each side is determined to bridge gaps by July 20, significant disagreements won’t make an accord easy to obtain, a U.S. official told reporters today before the talks. The official, who asked not to be named citing the sensitivity of the information, echoed Araghchi’s comments that this week’s talks will be critical.

‘Very Determined’

“They’re now doing the hard work,” Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. undersecretary of state and ambassador to the United Nations, said in a telephone interview from Rome, where he convened a June 12 meeting of Middle Eastern officials and security specialists trying to eliminate threats posed by weapons of mass destruction.

“There are differences that both sides seem very determined to bridge,” Pickering said, citing the amount of material to be produced and centrifuges to be allowed. “Both sides obviously have domestic political opposition they have to be very conscious about.”

While the sides have the option to extend the interim accord for another six months, failure to reach a deal by next month could embolden hardliners on both sides. The U.S. Congress has threatened to impose new sanctions, while, absent a deal, Iran might move to restart nuclear activities that are currently suspended in return for limited sanctions relief.

Iranian Stockpiles

International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who won wider access to Iranian facilities because of the interim accord, reported last month that Iran’s stockpile of its most sensitive nuclear material has dropped 82 percent since the deal was enacted.

Iran, which reportedly is ready to strike a deal for as many as eight new Russian reactors, says it wants the option of enriching fuel for those facilities. That may require Iran to increase the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges beyond the 19,000 already installed.

“Obviously if we cannot come to a deal, sanctions would continue, obviously we would go back to 20 percent enrichment, we would expand our capacity for enrichment” Araghchi said in Rome. “The alternative scenario is a disaster.”

The U.S. has elevated the rank of its most senior diplomat at the talks, according to a State Department e-mail. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who was in Geneva last week, will lead the American delegation in Vienna.

Diplomatic Tension

Last week’s meeting was used to persuade Iran to inject more realism into its proposals, according to the U.S. official, who said discussions have been direct and professional. Diplomatic tension may rise in the next month amid the very difficult decisions awaiting both sides, the official said.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov predicted this week’s talks may be more successful than earlier rounds, RIA Novosti reported.

Iran’s foreign minister, speaking after landing in Vienna today, said there is “a possibility for a final deal” if the U.S. and its European allies adopt “a realistic approach,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

“What we have heard and seen from various Western actors involved is that they are also keen to get to results within these 6 months of negotiations,” Zarif was cited as saying.

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