So far, diplomats say, there is little sign that the worst
East-West confrontation since the Cold War will undermine the quest
for a deal to end the standoff over Iran's atomic activity and avert
the threat of a Middle East war.
But unity among the powers on Iran may 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.
But Western diplomats said there had been no apparent spillover from
the Ukraine situation on expert level talks between Iran and the
powers — the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and
Russia — held two weeks ago.
"We hope that will continue to be the case," one said.
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 — which started around 10:30 a.m.
(0930 GMT) and are likely to end late on Wednesday. European Union
foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton leads the negotiations on
behalf of the powers.
Iranian media said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad 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
Despite a concerted push to end the decade-old nuclear dispute after
a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, was elected president last year
on a platform to end Iran's international isolation, big power
divisions have reared their head before.
Russia and China only reluctantly supported four rounds of U.N.
sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program between 2006 and
2010, and condemned subsequent U.S. and European sanctions that
targeted the country's lifeline oil exports.
[to top of second column]
TALKS WILL GET "TOUGHER" NOW, IRAN SAYS
Iran has long denied accusations from Western powers and Israel that
it has sought to develop the capability to produce atomic weapons
under the cover of its declared civilian nuclear energy program.
In November, Iran and the six powers struck an interim deal under
which Tehran has since shelved higher-grade uranium enrichment — a
potential path to atomic bombs — and obtained modest relief from
punitive economic sanctions in return.
That six-month pact was designed to buy time for hammering out a
final settlement by a July deadline, under which the West wants Iran
to significantly scale back its nuclear program to deny it the
capability to devise a nuclear weapon any time soon.
Zarif, who will lead Tehran's delegation, said he expects a trickier
round of talks this week than the previous meeting in mid-February
as the two sides try to iron out details such as Iran's Arak heavy
water reactor and levels of uranium enrichment.
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, said a senior Iranian
official who asked not to be named.
"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
He was alluding to powerful conservatives in Iran's security and
clerical establishments deeply suspicious of Rouhani's diplomatic
opening to the West.
(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak and Louis Charbonneau in
Vienna, editing by Angus MacSwan)
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