WASHINGTON – High-stakes diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program has “hit a wall,” according to France’s top diplomat, as details of private discussions in Geneva between Western powers and Iran began spilling into the public.
The latest round of talks in Switzerland – technically considered informal consultations by the United States, whose top representatives are meeting one-on-one with Iranian counterparts through Wednesday – has been interpreted by outside observers as an effort to jumpstart the stalled negotiations.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry questioned the practicality of a self-imposed July 20 deadline for the parties to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement this week.
But the US declined any formal interaction with members of the press in Geneva, only responding in Washington that the bilateral meetings were par for the course in the diplomatic process.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the focus of the P5+1– the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany – should remain on negotiations “behind the scenes,” and “not on public demands.”
“We believe we need to engage in active diplomacy,” Psaki said. “This is an example of that.”
Psaki was responding to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who on local radio on Tuesday, went into detail on the hurdles facing international powers in reaching a comprehensive deal.
The world community suspects Iran’s nuclear program has military dimensions.
“We are still hitting a wall on one absolutely fundamental point, which is the number of centrifuges that allow enrichment,” Fabius told France Inter radio. “We say that there can be a few hundred centrifuges, but the Iranians want thousands so we’re not in the same framework.”
Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, said it was “too soon to judge” whether more time was needed.
“But the good thing is all parties are seriously committed to meet that goal,” he said of the July 20 target. “Whether we can do it or not is something else,” he told Iranian media in Geneva.
On Capitol Hill, the House Foreign Affairs Committee acknowledged the difficult task ahead for negotiators on the ground in Europe.
Characterizing the Geneva bilateral talks as an “urgent push” on the part of the Obama administration to meet the July deadline – which may be extended by six months, as per an interim deal on the crisis forged last November – committee chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) warned against any deal that, upon expiration, grants Iran the same rights as any other country to enrich uranium.
“If Iran is left with the capacity to enrich, a break-out race to a weapon will be a permanent threat – a threat that undoubtedly would increase as sanctions are eased and the world turns its attention elsewhere,” Royce said. “That’s especially troubling, given how Iranian leaders have spoken of Israel as a ‘one-bomb country.’” The hearing, focused on the West’s ability to verify any potential nuclear deal with Iran through the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, listened to advice from four experts who agreed on one primary failing of the IAEA: its limited access, and therefore, its inability to search for undeclared nuclear facilities.
“Even if negotiators are able to reach a deal, we still don’t know what we don’t know,” ranking member of the committee Eliot Engel (D-NY) noted. “Building covert facilities, illicitly procuring equipment, outsourcing its program elsewhere – these steps could put Iran back on the path to a nuclear weapon.”
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