x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Iran nuclear talks gain pace as Lavrov arrives in Geneva

Iranian media reports a possible breakthrough in the talks that Western powers had agreed to acknowledge Tehran’s right to enrich uranium.

MOSCOW // The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, threw his weight behind nuclear talks with Iran yesterday, arriving in Geneva to join negotiators struggling to seal a deal.

As diplomats in Geneva struggled to find common language that would see Tehran start to roll back its atomic activities in exchange for sanctions relief, the were also reports that the US secretary of state John Kerry may join the talks as well.

Mr Lavrov said this week that he could meet Mr Kerry soon, but did not specify where the meeting would take place. The last round of talks between Iran and the six world powers ended on November 10 with no deal even after Mr Kerry, Mr Lavrov, the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany and a Chinese deputy foreign minister flew in and attempted to bridge differences.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, and Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top diplomat, have met repeatedly since Wednesday to hammer out language on a nuclear deal acceptable to both Tehran and the six powers. Differences on whether Iran has the right to enrich uranium that could be used to make nuclear weapons appeared to be a key sticking point.

Iranian media yesterday reported a possible breakthrough in the talks that Western powers had agreed to acknowledge Tehran’s right to enrich uranium, citing Western diplomats. However, Western diplomats vehemently denied that. They said a compromise had been proposed that does not explicitly recognise a right to produce nuclear fuel by any country.

The negotiations were supposed to be held between the six and Iranian delegation but those talks have been put on hold except for a brief meeting Wednesday. Instead, Mr Zarif and Ms Ashton have met repeatedly seeking to agree on a text that she would take to the six for approval.

The two met again briefly yesterday for talks that Iran’s official IRNA news agency described as “complicated and tough”.

Iran says it is enriching only for reactor fuel, medical uses and research. But the technology can also produce nuclear warhead material.

Mr Zarif last weekend indicated that Iran is ready to sign a deal that does not expressly state Iran’s right to enrich, raising hopes that a deal could be sealed at the current Geneva round.

On Wednesday, however, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said his country would never compromise on “red lines”. Since then Tehran has reverted to its original line – that the six powers must recognise this activity as Iran’s right under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty despite strong opposition by Israel and within the US Congress.

A senior Iranian negotiator said that the Iranian claim did not need to be explicitly recognised in any initial deal, despite Ayatollah Khamenei’s comment. He did suggest, however, that language on that point remained contentious, along with other differences.

Sanctions relief was also an issue.

The United States and its allies have signalled they are ready to ease some sanctions in return for a first-step deal that starts to put limits on Iran’s nuclear programme. But they insist that the most severe penalties – on Tehran’s oil exports and banking sector – will remain until the two sides reach a comprehensive agreement to minimise Iran’s nuclear arms-making capacity.

Iran says it does not want such weapons and has indicated it is ready to start rolling back its programme but wants greater and faster sanctions relief than that being offered.

A senior Western diplomat said late on Thursday that it would “not be a tragedy” if the third round of Geneva negotiations within a month adjourned without a deal and reconvened in a few weeks for another try.

* Associated Press with additional reporting by Reuters