Iran Says Progress Made On Nuclear Deal After French Meeting

French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, centre, walks after a meeting with his Iranian counterpart at an hotel in Lausanne Saturday, March 28, 2015.

Photograph: Brendan Smialowski, Pool/AP Photo

Iran says enough progress has been made at international talks to start working toward a draft accord that would end the 12-year standoff over its nuclear work.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made this assessment after meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, with Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister who has expressed reservations about a potential agreement. A Russian negotiator said chances of reaching a preliminary deal before a March 31 deadline were “significantly” better than 50-50.

“We discussed all issues that need to be resolved and I think we made progress, moving forward, I think we can, in fact, make the necessary progress to be able to resolve all the issues and start writing them down,” Zarif told reporters in the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel after the meeting.

Asked whether he agreed with Zarif’s evaluation that they had an “excellent meeting,” Fabius replied, “We’re working.” He didn’t answer further questions.

Diplomats have set an end-March deadline to craft a blueprint and a June 30 target to work out all the technical details of an accord. World powers are seeking constraints on Iran’s nuclear capacity, while the Persian Gulf country wants relief from international sanctions that have battered its economy over the past decade.

Zarif said headway has been made on sanctions relief, a major sticking point on the Iranian side.

“They have realized that sanctions pressure and an agreement will not go together,” Zarif said. “I see that Germany and France are really serious about reaching an agreement.”

‘Significantly Higher’

Sergei Ryabkov, a Russian negotiator, judged that the odds of a deal were “significantly higher than 50 percent,” while noting that “the toughest issues still need to be resolved” -- including sanctions and the scope of Iran’s enrichment program.

“If we don’t manage to agree this time, this shouldn’t lead to a complete reassessment,” because the deadline for a final deal is the end of June, and not next week, Ryabkov said.

In Washington on Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest put the chance of success at 50-50.

Parties are close to an agreement on turning Iran’s Fordo enrichment facility into a medical isotope production center, an official at the talks said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with diplomatic practice. While Iran would be prohibited from enriching uranium at Fordo, centrifuges would be allowed to produce molybdenum and other isotopes, according to the official’s account.

Fordo Compromise

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said a compromise had been reached over Fordo that would allow the Iranians to continue using the site, Japan’s NHK television said, citing an interview with the official. No details were given.

Fabius and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had a working lunch in Lausanne on Saturday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini is expected to join the negotiations on Saturday and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is due in Lausanne on Sunday, Ryabkov said.

The talks are taking place 18 months after President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pledged in a phone call to try to end the nuclear dispute. On Wednesday, Rouhani said he wrote to Obama and leaders of the other five negotiating nations -- China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K. -- urging them to overcome differences and make an accord possible.

Rouhani’s outreach was taken as a hopeful sign that an agreement is within reach, a U.S. official said late Friday, asking not to be identified in line with diplomatic rules. Talks aiming to bridge remaining disagreements continued to be tough and very serious, the official said.

Diplomats are still wrangling over how to define the accord and which details to release, three Western diplomats said on Thursday. While U.S. officials insist that any understanding needs hard numbers and details, the Iranian delegation prefers to hold off on specifics until the technical annexes of the agreement are finished, according to the officials.

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