VIENNA, (Reuters) – Six world powers and Iran launched a decisive phase of diplomacy yesterday to draft a lasting accord that would curb Tehran’s contested nuclear activity in exchange for a phased end to sanctions that have hobbled the Iranian economy.
After three months of discussing expectations rather than negotiating possible compromises, the sides are to set about devising a package meant to end years of antagonism and curtail the risk of a wider Middle East war with global repercussions.
A Western official close to the talks said yesterday that “progress is being made but all pieces have to fit together”.
“Nothing is agreed yet,” the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Washington’s decades-long estrangement from Iran could ease, improving international stability, if a deal were done but U.S. and other Western officials warned against unwarranted optimism given persisting, critical differences between the sides.
“We’ve spent the last couple of rounds putting all of the issues on the table, seeing where there may be points of agreement, where there may be gaps. There are some very significant gaps,” a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday.
“It’s not that there aren’t solutions to those gaps; there are. But getting to them is another matter.”
To get a deal, the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany will want Iran to agree to dramatically cut back its uranium enrichment programme to remove any risk that it could lead to the making of atomic bombs, while Iran will want them to eliminate sanctions against its oil-based economy.
Diplomats from both sides have said they want to resolve all sticking points about issues such as Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium and the future of its nuclear facilities, as well as the timeline of sanctions relief, by a July 20 deadline.
After that, an interim deal they struck last November expires and its extension would probably complicate talks.
A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who coordinates diplomacy with Iran on behalf of the six, said negotiators held a “useful initial discussion” on Wednesday morning and would hold coordination meetings later in the day.
“We are now hoping to move to a new phase … in which we will start pulling together what the outline of an agreement could be. All sides are highly committed,” Michael Mann said.