TEHRAN - Negotiators from Iran and the six world powers began their sixth round of talks in the Austrian capital Vienna on Wednesday for a final attempt to secure a deal on Tehran’s nuclear energy program.
The Vienna talks are meant to build on the interim deal that Iran and the 5+1 group struck in Geneva in November 2013, known as the Joint Plan of Action.
Under the Geneva deal, Iran agreed not to expand its nuclear program for six months in exchange for limited sanctions relief. The agreement came into force on January 20. Iran and the major powers have set a July 20 deadline to clinch a long-term nuclear deal. The deadline can be extended for another six months.
In February this year, Iran and the six world powers - the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany - held the first round of negotiations following the November deal in Vienna and agreed on a framework for future negotiations.
At the end of the talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif read a joint statement, saying, “It won’t be easy, but we’ve gotten off to a good start.”
Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, who represents the major powers in talks with Iran, said, “We have ... identified all of the issues we need to address for a comprehensive and final agreement.”
Also, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran was meeting its commitments under the first-step pact.
The delegates from the seven countries convened again in the Austrian city in March to hold their second round of talks.
The two sides said that they had “substantive and useful discussions covering a set of issues”, including uranium enrichment, the heavy-water reactor at Arak, and civil nuclear cooperation and sanctions.
They also agreed that technical experts should meet to elaborate on the details of the relevant issues.
The Iranian foreign minister said after the talks that he saw “signs” of a comprehensive deal, but underlined that an agreement is possible that respects the rights of the Iranian nation.
Zarif also noted that the Arak reactor was “part of Iran’s nuclear program and will not be closed down”.
In April, the two sides returned to Vienna to hold the third round of negotiations with the aim of bridging significant gaps in all key areas.
After their two-day talks, Zarif said more than half of the issues had been sorted out.
“We have agreement over 50 to 60 percent of the (final) draft ... but the remaining parts are very important and contain various issues,” Zarif told reporters.
At the time, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei said that Iran will never slow down its nuclear research and development (R&D).
He noted that the negotiations should continue, but underlined that the Iranian negotiating team should not yield to issues “forced on them.”
After three months of mostly comparing expectations rather than negotiating compromises, the sides entered the negotiations in May, with the intention of starting to draft a final agreement, but the talks without making any tangible progress.
“The talks were serious and constructive but no progress has been made,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told reporters at the end of the talks.
Diplomats said positions remained far apart on the issue of Iran’s capacity to refine uranium, which the West fears if processed to a high degree, it can be used to make a bomb. The concern has always been rejected by Tehran, as the country needs to do enrichment to fuel nuclear power stations which produce electricity.
The West wants Tehran to significantly reduce the number of centrifuges - roughly 10,000 - it now operates.
Following the fourth round of negotiations, senior Iranian officials held bilateral talks with diplomats from the United States, France, Russia, and Germany in a bid to bring the views closer.
At the fifth round of the talks in June, Iran and the 5+1 group finally stepped in to draft the text of a final agreement, with both sides describing it as a “working document” which is “heavily bracketed” due to remaining disagreements.
Foreign Minister Zarif highlighted the wide gulf between the sides, urging the six nations to “abandon excessive demands which will not be accepted by Iran”.
“There has been progress, but major disputes remain,” Zarif said.
Separately, the UN watchdog released a report saying that Iran had acted to eliminate virtually all its most sensitive stockpile of enriched uranium gas.
Iran is continuing to abide by the terms of last year’s interim deal, the report added.
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