After three months of floating expectations rather than
negotiating possible compromises, the sides now aim to devise a
package meant to end years of antagonism and curtail the risk of a
wider Middle East war with global repercussions.
Washington's decades-long estrangement from Iran could ease,
improving international stability, if a deal were done but U.S.
officials warned against unwarranted optimism given persisting,
critical differences between the sides.
In the next two months, the United States, Russia, China, France,
Britain and Germany will want Iran to agree to dramatically cut back
its uranium enrichment program, which they fear could lead to the
making of atomic bombs, while Iran wants them to eliminate sanctions
against its oil-based economy.
Diplomats from both sides have said they want to resolve all
sticking points about issues such as Iran's capacity to enrich
uranium and the future of its nuclear facilities, as well as the
timeline of sanctions relief, by a July 20 deadline.
After that, an interim deal they struck last November expires and
its extension would probably complicate talks.
An accord in two months is far from assured, with Western diplomats
warning that divisions could prove insurmountable.
"Quite frankly, this is very, very difficult," a senior U.S.
official told reporters on the eve of the talks, speaking on
condition of anonymity.
"I would caution people that just because we will be drafting it
certainly does not mean an agreement is imminent or that we are
certain to eventually get to a resolution."
A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who
coordinates diplomacy with Iran on behalf of the six, said
negotiators held a "useful initial discussion" on Wednesday morning
and would hold coordination meetings later in the day.
"We are now hoping to move to a new phase of negotiations in which
we will start pulling together what the outline of an agreement
could be. All sides are highly committed."
ISRAELI THREAT TO HIT IRAN
Looming in the background of the talks have been threats by Israel,
widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear weaponry but
which sees Iran as a existential threat, to attack Iranian nuclear
installations if it deems diplomacy ultimately futile in containing
Tehran's atomic abilities and potential.
U.S. President Barack Obama has not ruled the last-ditch option of
military action either.
Broadly, the six powers want to ensure the Iranian program is
curtailed enough so that it would take Iran a long time to assemble
nuclear bomb components if it chose to do so. The Islamic Republic
says it wants only peaceful nuclear energy.
Central to this issue will be the number of centrifuge machines,
which potentially can enrich uranium to bomb-fuel quality, that Iran
would be permitted to operate.
Tehran has about 10,000 centrifuges running but the West will likely
want that number trimmed to the low thousands, a demand that could
be unacceptable to the Islamic Republic.
Iran's research and development of new nuclear technologies and the
amount of stockpiled enriched uranium it may keep will also be
crucial and likely difficult to negotiate. Refined uranium can be
used as fuel in nuclear power plants or in weapons if purified to a
high enough level.
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"Halting research and development of uranium enrichment has never
been up for negotiation, and we would not have accepted it either,"
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted as saying
by the ISNA news agency.
"But a wide variety of issues have been
discussed ... and on uranium enrichment too we have tried to reach
Iran entered talks with the big powers after moderate President
Hassan Rouhani was elected last June.
"OUT OF CONTROL"
Diplomats have signaled some progress may have been made during
three rounds of expert-level talks since February on one of the
thorniest issues - the future of Iran's planned Arak heavy-water
reactor, which Western states worry could prove a source of
plutonium for nuclear bomb fuel once operational.
But the U.S. official cautioned that some media reports about
progress reached up until now were going too far.
"I've read a lot of the optimism you've written," the official told
reporters. "It's gotten way out of control."
Other diplomats from the powers warned that progress, if any, in the
coming talks will be slow. And any agreement may come only at the
11th hour. "It's very difficult to say how it will all work in
practice now. We have no agenda but that's not different from any
other meeting," said one.
"The figures will come at the end. They will be part of the big
bargaining," he said, referring to decisions about issues such as
the number of centrifuges to remain in Iran.
Much of the complexity of the final agreement stems from the fact
that its various elements are intertwined. A higher number of
centrifuges left in Iran would mean the powers wanting Tehran to
more substantially slow down the pace of enrichment to low levels,
"All the parameters are interdependent," one diplomat said.
Politically, any deal could still be torpedoed by conservative hawks
in the United States or Iran, and another interfering factor could
be the approaching U.S. midterm congressional elections.
Divisions in Washington are closely linked to concerns in Israel
that any deal might not go far enough. "We are not against
diplomatic solutions. But on the one condition, that it is a serious
and comprehensive solution. A solution that can be trusted," Yuval
Steinitz, Israel's minister in charge of nuclear affairs, told
reporters in Brussels last week in Brussels.
(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl and Parisa Hafezi in Vienna;
Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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