Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif smiles during a news conference in Geneva, November 24, 2013..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran and the US said they made some progress in “difficult” high-level nuclear talks (also including EU diplomats), but much work remained to clinch a breakthrough deal by the November 24 deadline for talks.
Both sides said they still aimed to meet the self-imposed November 24 date, despite doubts among many experts that they can reach a full agreement to end the more than decade-old dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program by then.
A framework for talks was agreed to in November 2013, with the talks officially launched on January 20, 2014, with the goal of reaching a deal by July 20.
When the July 20 deadline evaporated, the sides exercised an extension option that was part of the framework to push the deadline off to the current November 24 deadline (though the deadline could have been pushed until January 20, 2015, under the framework).
US Secretary of State John Kerry left Vienna early on Thursday after six hours of talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton the previous day, but his officials remained to continue the talks through Thursday.
“It was very difficult, serious and intensive... but instead of focusing on problems, we discussed solutions as well,” Zarif told Iranian media, sources who were present told Reuters. “There was progress in all the fields.”
The US side also said progress was made.
Zarif said he would next meet with Kerry and Ashton in three to four weeks’ time, though not in Vienna, Iranian state television reported.
But Western officials say there are still gaps between the positions, especially over the future scope of Iran’s production of enriched uranium, which can have civilian and military uses.
Western governments want Iran to cut its uranium enrichment capacity so that it would take a long time to purify enough uranium for an atomic weapon.
Reportedly, the US had until recently demanded that Iran reduce the number of its operating centrifuges, devices that enrich uranium, to 1,500.
Tehran has rejected demands to significantly reduce the number of enrichment centrifuges below the 19,000 it has now installed, of which roughly 9,000 first-generation centrifuges are operating.
“This is something like a trivial matter and we should not bargain over trivial matters,” Iran’s Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani told reporters in Geneva on Wednesday.
The Islamic Republic also has had around 1,000 installed, but non-operational second-generation centrifuges – meaning, if those centrifuges went operational, they would enrich uranium toward a weapons-grade level at a faster rate.
Recently, the US reportedly moved somewhat toward Iran, offering it the possibility of continuing to operate up to around 4,500 centrifuges.
In bottom-line terms, the change would mean accepting a six-month nuclear breakout period for Iran instead of a one-year period, according to various experts.
Calling the matter trivial not long after leaked reports that the US had raised its number of Iranian centrifuges for enriching uranium that it would tolerate and with less than six weeks to go in talks was likely significant.
But it was unclear if the statement was made to further soften the US position by acting like even the new reported-US position is trivial, or for Iran to start signaling a readiness to move toward the US by acting as if the number of centrifuges is trivial to it.
One of Iran’s chief negotiators, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, last week raised the possibility the talks could be extended, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that the deadline was not “sacred.”
But Zarif said none of the parties believed in extending the talks, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting said.
A senior US official said an extension was not discussed, adding: “You never say never, but today we are focused on November 24 and November 24 only.”
An extension of talks into January 2015 could make a deal harder for President Barack Obama if the Republican Party takes of the US Senate.
The US official said gaps in negotiating positions must be narrowed in a way that “ensures that all of the pathways for fissile material for a nuclear weapon are shut down.”