x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Iran foreign minister tasked with nuclear talks: presidency

The announcement comes three weeks before Iran and the UN atomic watchdog are to resume talks in Vienna over Tehran's controversial nuclear programme.

TEHRAN // Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has tasked the foreign ministry, headed by Mohammad Javad Zarif, with handling the country's sensitive nuclear negotiations with world powers, the president's website said yesterday.

The announcement comes three weeks before Iran and the UN atomic watchdog are to resume talks in Vienna over Tehran's controversial nuclear programme.

Until now, Tehran's point man has been Saeed Jalili, head of the Supreme National Security Council. That follows a tradition dating back to 2003, when Mr Rouhani himself headed the council.

In recent weeks, the media had speculated that Mr Zarif, who worked with Mr Rouhani when he held the job until 2005, would be taking over the talks.

The president last month named ex-foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi to head the country's Atomic Energy Organisation and career diplomat Reza Najafi as envoy to the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Western countries and Israel suspect Iran's nuclear programme is cover for a drive for a weapons capability, an ambition Tehran denies.

The IAEA has been probing the programme for a decade, and a number of international sanctions have been slapped on Tehran for its refusal to stop enriching uranium. That process can lead to producing the fissile core of an atomic weapon.

Talks between Tehran and major world powers have so far failed to yield an agreement.

The last round of discussions were held in mid-May, before the election of Mr Rouhani, who was Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator under reformist president Mohammad Khatami.

Delegates from the IAEA and Iranian officials have held 10 rounds of failed meetings since the November 2011 publication of a major IAEA report on Tehran's nuclear programme.

Director-general Yukiya Amano expressed his frustration in June at talks that were "going around in circles".

The IAEA wants Iran to grant access to sites, documents and scientists involved in Tehran's alleged efforts to develop atomic weapons, which the agency suspects mostly took place before 2003 but are possibly still ongoing.

Iran says the IAEA's findings are based on faulty intelligence from foreign spy agencies such as the CIA and Israel's Mossad — intelligence it complains it has not even been allowed to see.

In its quarterly report, seen by AFP last week, the IAEA said Iran had installed hundreds more centrifuges since May that could enable it to enrich uranium faster. That would allow it to obtain the amount of fissile material needed for a nuclear bomb more quickly, if it wished to go down that path.

Parallel talks between Tehran and the six powers — the so-called P5+1 composed of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — have been stalled since April.

Both Israel and the United States have refused to rule out military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Iran has been hit by four rounds of UN sanctions, as well as EU and US sanctions on its oil and banking sectors. The UN Security Council has also passed several resolutions urging it to halt enrichment.

Western powers hope that Mr Rouhani, who replaced the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could breathe new life into efforts to resolve the nuclear issue.

During his role as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, he accepted the suspension of the enrichment programme.

Mr Rouhani said last month that Iran was ready for serious talks, but he said there could be no surrender of the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy and that Iran would not give up uranium enrichment.