GENEVA, (Reuters) – Iran and six world powers extended high-stakes talks over Tehran’s nuclear programme into an unscheduled third day today, as their top diplomats laboured to hammer out a long-sought deal to end a decade-old standoff.
The United States and Iran were cautious and tight-lipped after a five-hour trilateral meeting between their foreign ministers and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is coordinating talks with the Islamic state for the six powers. They were searching for an agreement to ease international fears that Iran is seeking the capability to make nuclear weapons and, in exchange, offer the Middle East nation limited relief from sanctions that are hurting its economy.
The aim is to take a first step towards resolving a protracted dispute that could otherwise plunge the volatile and oil-rich region into a new conflict.
“We’re working hard,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters as he arrived at his hotel shortly before midnight (2300 GMT) following the meeting with Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
A senior State Department official said: “Over the course of the evening, we continued to make progress as we worked to the narrow the gaps. There is more work to do.”
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said: “It was productive but still we have lots of work to do.”
The negotiations, originally planned as a two-day meeting for Thursday and Friday, will continue on Saturday morning.
Unlike previous encounters between Iran and Western powers in the past decade, all sides have remained quiet about details of the negotiations, without the criticism and mutual allegations of a lack of seriousness that were typical of such meetings in the past. Diplomats involved in the talks say this is a sign of how serious all sides are.
Midway through the second round of talks since Iran elected a moderate president who opened doors to a peaceful solution to the nuclear dispute, Kerry joined fellow big power foreign ministers in Geneva to help cement a preliminary accord. Israel warned they were making an epic mistake.
Kerry said he would try to “narrow these differences but I don’t think anybody should mistake there are some important gaps that have to be closed.”
Iran spelled out a major difference soon afterwards, with a member of its negotiating team, Majid Takt-Ravanchi, telling Mehr news agency that oil and banking sanctions imposed on Tehran should be eased during the first phase of any deal.
The powers have offered Iran access to up to $50 billion in Iranian funds frozen abroad for many years but ruled out any broad dilution of sanctions in the early going of an agreement.
Diplomats said a breakthrough remained uncertain and would in any case mark only the first step in a long, complex process towards a permanent resolution of international concerns that Iran may be seeking the means to build nuclear bombs.
MOOTED IRAN DEAL
But the diplomats said the arrival of Kerry, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and French and German foreign ministers Laurent Fabius and Guido Westerwelle signalled that the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany may be closer to an elusive pact with Iran than ever before.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was expected to join them on Saturday. Lavrov’s deputy was quoted by state-run RIA news agency as saying the sides were loath to leave Geneva “without a positive result (since to do so) would be a serious strategic mistake.”
A senior U.S. State Department official said Kerry was committed to doing “anything he can” to overcome the chasm with Tehran. The powers aim to cap Iran’s nuclear work to prevent any advance towards a nuclear weapons capability.
Kerry arrived from Tel Aviv, where he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who regards Iran’s atomic aspirations as a menace to the Jewish state.
Netanyahu warned Kerry and his European counterparts that Iran would be getting “the deal of the century” if they carried out proposals to grant Tehran limited, temporary relief from sanctions in exchange for a partial suspension of, and pledge not to expand, its enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel.