x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Hopes dim for Iran nuclear agreement as Russia and China skip talks

VIENNA // Decisions by the foreign ministers of Russia and China to skip talks on Iran’s nuclear programme this weekend are further denting expectations that the stalled negotiations will produce a deal by July 20.

The US — which is sending secretary of state John Kerry to join three other ministers — is putting on a good face. State department spokeswoman Marie Harf says the six powers talking with Iran remain “united in the negotiating room, as we always have”.

But the absence of Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is noteworthy, in light of suggestions by France that Moscow is deviating from joint negotiating stances with Iran. It may also reflect recognition that the two sides are too far apart, and the talks will have to be extended.

The most important disputes over how deeply Iran must cut its nuclear programme to gain sanctions relief are between Washington and Tehran, so Mr Kerry’s presence is important. He will be able to talk directly to Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is already at the Vienna negotiations.

British foreign secretary William Hague, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius and German foreign minister Walter Steinmeier are also attending. But the absence of Mr Lavrov and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi could be detrimental — it took foreign ministers or their deputies of all six nations to negotiate a preliminary deal with Tehran in November.

Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi spoke on Saturday of “huge and deep” differences. But he told Iranian TV that “if no breakthrough is achieved, it doesn’t mean that [the] talks have failed.”

Mr Lavrov is on a Latin American tour culminating with a July 15 Brazil summit of emerging major economic nations, including China. Still, his no-show comes at a troubling moment — just days after Mr Fabius criticised Moscow for having “differences of approach” with the mainstream at the negotiations.

Mr Fabius didn’t elaborate. But Kremlin-backed analysts blame the US for stalling the talks by pushing unrealistic demands.

Vladimir Evseyev of the Russian state-run CIS institute said Washington’s insistence that Iran shut down uranium enrichment facilities and negotiate on its missile programme violates the accords outlining the scope of the talks. The US, he said, wants negotiations to “to be lengthy and painful”, to keep sanctions in place for its own political agenda.

Diplomats familiar with the talks say Moscow shares Washington’s desire for a deal. But while the US wants deep cuts in Iranian programmes that could be used to make nuclear arms, Russia would settle for pervasive monitoring, they say.

Former US state department official Mark Fitzpatrick says the Russian absence might simply indicate that Moscow doesn’t anticipate agreement by July 20.

But “if a deal does appear to emerge, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lavrov on the next plane to Vienna,” says Mr Fitzpatrick, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

* Associated Press