Wednesday 13 November 2019

Iran nuclear talks resume as preliminary agreement 'close'

The reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran (AP/Mehr News Agency)
The reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran (AP/Mehr News Agency)

Senior diplomats from six countries have held a morning strategy session meant to advance the pace of agonisingly slow nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Iran's foreign minister said the sides were close to a preliminary agreement, but not yet there.

The talks resumed several hours after a flurry of marathon overnight sessions between US secretary of state John Kerry and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as well as other meetings among the six powers negotiating to curb Iranian nuclear programs that could be used to make weapons.

Iran denies any interest in such arms and wants a deal that will quickly lift economic sanctions stifling its economy.

Two days after busting through a March 31 deadline, the negotiators hope to leave the Swiss city of Lausanne with at least a text outlining general political commitments to resolve concerns about Iran's nuclear programme, and the pace of lifting sanctions. They are also trying to fashion more detailed documents on the steps they must take by June 30 to meet those goals.

As he headed to his own meeting, Mr Zarif said the talks had made "significant progress". But he said drafts still had to be written. Reaching both agreement in Lausanne as well as a June final deal will be "a difficult job", he said.

One problem, said Mr Zarif, was differing voices among the other side at the table - the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - making it difficult for them "to reach a co-ordination".

The talks - the latest in more than a decade of diplomatic efforts to curb Iran's nuclear prowess - hit the week-long mark today, shortly before the US State Department announced they would go into double overtime from the March 31 deadline.

As the sides bore down on efforts to get a deal, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier cancelled a planned visit to Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius was also back, less than a day after leaving the city.

The West demands that the Lausanne talks wind up with concrete commitments.

But Iran has pushed back, demanding a general statement with few specifics. That is politically unpalatable for the Obama administration, which must convince a hostile Congress that it has made progress in the talks so lawmakers do not enact new sanctions that could destroy the negotiations.

By blowing through self-imposed deadlines, US president Barack Obama risks further antagonising lawmakers in both parties who are poised to take their own action to upend a deal if they determine the president has been too conciliatory.

The initial response to the extensions from Republicans suggested they had already come to that conclusion.

"It is clear, the negotiations are not going well," said senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in a statement. "At every step, the Iranians appear intent on retaining the capacity to achieve a nuclear weapon."

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