Iran’s foreign minister said on Wednesday that his country and six world powers are in “50 to 60 percent agreement” on the shape of a deal meant to crimp any potential Iranian attempt to build nuclear arms in exchange for an end to crippling economic sanctions.
Speaking for the six, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton was less upbeat as the talks reached the halfway mark toward their informal July deadline. She said that after several rounds of exploratory talks, the two sides were now ready to bridge remaining gaps standing in the way of agreement.
The talks paused until May 13 amid stern warnings from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose message has varied over the past months between support for the discussions and accusations of bad-faith negotiating on the part of the US and its allies.
“Our negotiators should not accept any coercive words from the other party,” Khamenei told Iranian nuclear scientists in a speech marking Iran’s National Day of Nuclear Technology. “The country’s nuclear achievements can’t be stopped, and no one has the right to bargain over it.”
Coming out of the talks, Ashton described them as “substantive and detailed ... a lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences ahead.”
However, Ashton suggested some progress was made and negotiators are now looking to the next round to “bridge the gaps standing in way of a comprehensive agreement.”
Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif, his country’s chief negotiator, read the same statement in Farsi. He then told reporters that the two sides were in “50 to 60 percent agreement,” adding that he expected the tentative July 20 target date for a final deal to be met.
A senior US administration official declined to confirm whether that assessment was accurate, but said only 100 percent agreement by both sides would produce a deal. The official demanded anonymity in line with US Department of State briefing rules.
Unlike previous rounds, the May meeting will be open-ended to allow negotiators to meet all week, if needed, as they increase efforts to seal a deal, she said.
The world powers are offering to remove sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy, provided Tehran agrees to strict long-term limits on any nuclear activities that could be used to make a weapon.
The future scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment program is the toughest issue. Iran denies any interest in nuclear arms and argues it needs robust enrichment capacities to make low-enriched reactor fuel.
The US, Britain, France and Germany want significant cuts, to decrease the chances that the program will be re-engineered to make high-enriched material for atomic arms. Russia and China are somewhere in the middle.
The six also want to eliminate potential proliferation dangers from an enrichment site at Fordo, south of Tehran, that is built far underground to withstand air strikes, and at a nearly built nuclear reactor at Arak, in northwestern Iran, that could produce substantial amounts of plutonium unless it is changed to a model with new specifications.
Like enriched uranium, plutonium can be used for the core of a nuclear weapon.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said there had been progress on the reactor issue, but said no specific plan had been put forward.