US, Iran seek elusive breakthrough in nuclear talks

As the deadline for a nuclear deal with Tehran looms, US secretary of state says a deal with Iran is achievable though there are still 'tough issues to resolve'.

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VIENNA // US secretary of state John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart sought on Wednesday to jumpstart stalled talks over Tehran’s nuclear programme, less than six weeks before a deadline to forge a deal.

Iran and six world powers have until November 24 to strike a comprehensive accord meant to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons under the cover of its civilian atomic programme.

Ahead of the meeting in Vienna with Mohammad Javad Zarif as well as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Mr Kerry said there was still hard work to be done but that a deal remained achievable.

“I don’t believe it’s out of reach, but we have some tough issues to resolve,” Mr Kerry told reporters in Paris on Tuesday after talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Mr Kerry refused to be drawn on whether – as floated by Lavrov, Iran’s president and many experts – Iran and the six powers might push back the target date, as they did earlier this year.

“We need to continue to have some serious discussions, which we will, and we’ll see where we are,” he said.

“I don’t think anything is served by a lot of speculation at this point in time.

A senior state department spokesman added on Wednesday: “We’re not talking about an extension. There is still time to get this done... if everyone can make the decisions they need.”

But Mr Lavrov, whose country together with the US, China, Britain, France and Germany forms the P5+1 group, said on Tuesday in Paris that the November deadline was not “sacred”.

“We aspire to get a result by that date but I am convinced by the principle that it is not artificially-set deadlines but the essence of the deal, the quality of the deal [that counts],” Mr Lavrov said.

Mr Zarif too appeared to indicate that another extension might be needed in order to discuss what he called “serious and innovative” -- but unspecified -- “new methods”.

“These talks will take time ... and it is possible that more time might be needed to discuss these solutions,” he told state television late on Tuesday after talks with US and EU negotiators including Ms Ashton.

Iran, reeling from sanctions pressure, denies seeking to build the atomic bomb and says it wants to expand its nuclear programme in order to generate electricity and help cancer patients.

But the six powers are pressing Tehran to reduce in scope its activities in order to make any dash to make a weapon all but impossible, offering sanctions relief in return.

Last November, the two sides agreed an interim deal and set a July 20 target to agree a lasting accord, but the deadline was extended to November 24.

Progress appears to have been made on changing the design of a new reactor at Arak so that it produces less weapons-grade plutonium, as well as on enhanced UN inspections and on the fortified Fordo facility.

The main bone of contention however remains Iran’s enrichment capacity, a process rendering uranium suitable for power generation but also, at high purities, for a nuclear weapon.

Other problem areas include the pace at which sanctions would be lifted, the timeframe that an accord would cover and a troubled UN probe into past suspect “military dimensions” of Iran’s activities.

The US official said that Washington had identified sanctions that could be eased in a first step in any deal but indicated that there remained disagreement on this with the Iranians.

Many analysts have begun to believe that the deadline might be extended again, possibly locking in something on Arak and Fordo, into a so-called “Interim Plus” deal.

“A fully-fledged agreement by November 24 no longer appears likely. What is still possible is a breakthrough that could justify adding more time to the diplomatic clock,” said Ali Vaez from the International Crisis Group.

“Our will is that in 40 days the matter will be resolved but if other things happen and we are not able to solve all the problems, the two camps will find a solution,” Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said on state television on Friday.

* Agence France-Press