x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Iran says path open for solution to nuclear dispute

World powers should seize an 'historic opportunity' to clinch a deal on Iran's nuclear programme, the country's foreign minister says, ahead of today's fresh round of negotiations.

World powers should seize an “historic opportunity” to clinch a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, the country’s foreign minister said, ahead of a fresh round of negotiations beginning today.

In a five-minute foreign ministry video released on the eve of the talks, Mohammad Javad Zarif said there was a chance to end the stand-off as long as Western powers dealt with Iran on an “equal footing” and did not seek to impose their will on others.

Negotiators from Iran, the United States, Russia, France, Britain, China and Germany will meet in Geneva today for the third round of discussions in a month, and two weeks after coming close to an initial accord that would curb Tehran’s nuclear activity in exchange for limited relief from sanctions.

The election of relative moderate Hassan Rouhani as president earlier this year opened a diplomatic window to try to untangle the decade-long deadlock that has at times edged towards conflict in the Middle East.

“This past summer, our people chose constructive engagement through the ballot box, and through this, they gave the world a historic opportunity to change course,” Mr Zarif said in the video posted online with subtitles in several languages.

“To seize this unique opportunity, we need to accept an equal footing and choose a path based on mutual respect.”

The talks seek to reach an interim deal to allow time to negotiate a comprehensive, permanent agreement that would provide assurances to the so-called P5+1 powers that Iran’s atomic programme will not eventually produce bombs.

Iran denies that it wants to develop a nuclear weapons capability and insists its programme is limited to the peaceful generation of electricity and medical research.

The talks from November 7-9 stumbled over Iran’s insistence that its right to enrich uranium be explicitly recognised in the draft text, and demands from the French delegation that the Arak heavy water reactor be shut down.

Mr Zarif on Sunday offered a possible way around the first point, saying Tehran has the right to enrich uranium but does not now insist others recognise that right.

He told reporters in Rome en route to Geneva yesterday that there was “every possibility” of a successful conclusion.

“I’m willing to accept serious progress instead of an agreement but I’m certain that, with the necessary political will, we can make progress and even reach an agreement,” he said.

Earlier yesterday, Iranian parliamentarians gathered signatures to demand the government continue enriching uranium to levels of 20 per cent and finish building the Arak reactor, which it is feared could produce bomb-grade plutonium.

Mr Rouhani has repeatedly said Iran will never give up its right to produce nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes, a message the Islamic Republic’s parliament, dominated by conservatives, appears to want to hold him to.

“On the eve of the Geneva talks, we plan to approve such a proposal in parliament. Based on that, the government is obliged to protect the nuclear rights of Iran in the forthcoming negotiations,” Mehr news agency quoted member of parliament Fatemeh Alia as saying.

Another MP, Mehdi Mousavinejad, said the measure would require the government to maintain enrichment of uranium to 20 per cent, complete the nuclear fuel cycle and finish construction of the Arak reactor.

While it has limited powers in Iran’s complex political system, parliament would likely vote on any nuclear deal. However, it would be very unlikely to go against the wishes of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mr Rouhani’s approach to the talks, which he says is the best way to get sanctions hobbling Iran’s oil-based economy lifted, has Mr Khamenei’s public backing.

Iranian political figures accused France of jeopardising chances of a deal after its foreign minister Laurent Fabius warned against accepting “a fool’s game” – that is, what he considered lopsided concessions to Tehran.

Israel has also strongly opposed any deal and called for greater concessions from Tehran before any easing of sanctions.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, travels to Russia today and is expected to lobby Moscow to reject an interim agreement that he says would give Iran vital sanctions relief while failing to halt its alleged march towards nuclear weapons capability..

The US secretary of state John Kerry pressed Iran on Monday to finalise an agreement proving to the world that its nuclear activity was peaceful but said he had “no specific expectations” for this week’s talks.

* Reuters