Diplomatic efforts by Iran and world powers toward a potentially historic nuclear deal entered uncharted territory yesterday as a new round of talks started in Vienna.
After three meetings that Washington says have enabled both sides to “understand each other’s positions,” the negotiators are this time aiming to start drafting the text of an accord.
Success could resolve one of the most intractable geopolitical problems of the 21st century, but failure might plunge the Middle East into conflict and start a regional nuclear arms race.
“If the odds of the talks collapsing are high, the stakes of failure are higher,” Ali Vaez, Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, told reporters. “Time is of the essence.”
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany — the so-called P5+1 —want Iran to reduce the scope of its nuclear program to make any dash to build an atomic bomb virtually impossible.
In return, the Islamic Republic, which says its nuclear activities are purely peaceful, wants the lifting of all UN and Western sanctions that have crippled its economy.
Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif, installed by bridge-building new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last year, said after the last round last month that there was agreement on “50 to 60 percent” of issues.
Yet with both sides sticking to the mantra that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” — a process one US negotiator likened to a Rubik’s Cube — this is not enough.
Arriving in Vienna on Tuesday, both Iran and the US sought to dampen expectations that a deal was within easy reach, with Zarif saying a “lot of effort” was still required.
A senior US official said the talks would be “very, very difficult” and that there were still “significant gaps” between the two sides and a “range of complicated issues” to tackle, not least of which is Israel’s mistrust of Tehran’s intentions.
“Iran continues to deceive the world and advance its nuclear program,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late on Tuesday in Japan.
“Clearly, the Ayatollahs cannot be trusted,” added Netanyahu, whose country is widely believed to have nuclear weapons itself, saying that “rogue state” Iran was passing nuclear technology to North Korea.
Netanyahu, who is in Japan this week for talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida, said Tehran “would share whatever technology it acquired with North Korea,” the Mainichi Shimbun reported in a front-page piece.
Asked if Pyongyang is receiving technologies linked to nuclear and missile development from Iran, Netanyahu said: “Yes, that’s exactly the case.”
North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program is one of Japan’s major security concerns.
Observers have said that despite international isolation and extensive sanctions, North Korea appears to be readying to carry out a fourth nuclear test and regularly makes noises about the weaponization of its technology.
While being one of Pyongyang’s harshest critics, resource-poor Japan has maintained friendly ties with oil-rich Iran through its years of ostracism from the international community, keeping up a diplomatic dialogue that many developed countries cut off decades ago.
The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement said Kishida “stressed” in talks with Netnayhu “the importance of support by the international community including Israel to the framework of talks” between Iran and the P5+1, following a similar comment from Abe on Monday.
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