|Iran, 5+1 group start ‘tough discussions’ on final nuclear deal||
TEHRAN – Iran and the major powers started talks in Vienna on Tuesday in pursuit of a final deal on Tehran’s nuclear program.
The talks began when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who oversees the talks on behalf of the six major powers, to hold preparatory discussions.
The discussions are expected to end late on Wednesday.
“Important and tough discussions ahead today,” Zarif said on Twitter before the start of the talks. “We have held our end of the bargain. Time for our counterparts to keep theirs.”
Iran and the 5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) clinched an interim deal in Geneva on November 24, 2013, according to which Iran agreed not to expand its nuclear program for six months in exchange for limited sanctions relief.
The Geneva agreement was designed to provide time to negotiate a comprehensive solution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.
The six-month interim agreement came into force on January 20.
Iran and the major powers agreed on a timetable and framework for negotiating a final deal during their talks in Vienna from February 18 to 20.
Zarif has recently said that the two sides do not expect to reach a final agreement in the new round of talks in Vienna. He also said that the purpose of the Vienna talks is to exchange views about various dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, including uranium enrichment and the Arak heavy water reactor.
“In all these areas we will talk about the ways to build up trust,” the chief diplomat said.
Ukraine crisis not seen hurting Iran nuclear talks: EU
So far, diplomats said, there is little sign that the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War would undermine the quest for a deal over Iran's atomic activity, Reuters reported.
The March 18-19 meeting between Iran and the 5+1 group began a day after Washington and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russian officials over events in Crimea.
"I haven't seen any negative effect," Michael Mann, a spokesman for Ashton told reporters. "We continue our work in a unified fashion".
But that unity among the powers on Iran may still be tested in the meeting of their chief negotiators on the issue in the Austrian capital Vienna, with the four Western states and Russia at loggerheads over the future of Ukraine.
Russia and the West have in the past differed on how best to deal with Iran, with Moscow generally enjoying warmer ties with the Islamic Republic and suggesting Western fears about any nuclear military aims by Tehran are overblown.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions including asset freezes and travel bans on some senior Russian and Ukrainian officials after Crimea applied to join Russia on Monday following a secession referendum.
As in previous meetings, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov represented Russia at the talks.
Zarif cancels customary pre-talks dinner with Ashton
Iranian media said Foreign Minister Zarif had canceled a customary pre-talks dinner with Ashton on Monday evening. The official IRNA news agency said it was because of Ashton's "undiplomatic" behavior, an apparent reference to her meeting Iranian human rights activists during her first visit to Tehran 10 days ago.
A senior Iranian official who asked not to be named said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has granted the Iranian nuclear team "carte blanche" to provide guarantees to the West that the country's nuclear program is peaceful.
"But the red line is closure of any nuclear site and stopping enrichment," the official said. "The talks are becoming more and more difficult because hardliners in Iran are watching any outcome very closely."
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