LAUSANNE: The United States and Iran inched closer to a political deal that would set the stage for a landmark nuclear agreement, but a US official warned on Monday that Iran must make tough choices to allay fears about its atomic ambitions.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif held nearly five hours of talks in the Swiss city of Lausanne before the Iranian delegation headed to Brussels for meetings with European ministers.
After that meeting a senior US official told reporters that it was not clear if an end-March deadline for a framework agreement between Iran and six major powers could be met.
“We are trying to get there but quite frankly we still do not know if we will be able to,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “Iran still has to make some very tough and necessary choices to address the significant concerns that remain about its nuclear programme.” Without elaborating, the official added that the Iranian delegation also raised in the meeting with Kerry an “ill-timed and ill-advised” letter from 47 Republican senators to Iran’s leadership warning that they could undo any deal President Barack Obama made with them.
“These kinds of distractions are not helpful when we’re talking about something so serious,” the official added.
The US official said the sides would work through the end of the month if needed to secure a deal. Talks are expected to resume on Tuesday. Speaking to reporters in Brussels, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said progress had made in the talks but “important points” were unresolved.
With the Iranian new year holiday of Norouz approaching this weekend, officials close to the talks say it will be difficult to complete a political agreement this week. If it is not possible by the weekend, the talks could reconvene in the final days of March.
Zarif said all sides needed to keep talking this week to see what could be achieved.
“On some issues we are closer to a solution and based on this we can say solutions are within reach. At the same time, we are apart on some issues,” he told the Iranian news agency IRNA.
Six world powers — the United States, Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China — are trying to reach a political framework agreement with Iran by the end of the month that would curb Tehran’s most sensitive nuclear activities for at least 10 years in exchange for the gradual easing of some sanctions.
The parties have set a June 30 deadline to finalise all the technical details of an accord. Western officials say privately that overcoming disagreements on some of the remaining sticking points would be very difficult.
The meeting between Kerry and Zarif included US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi.
“I’m very optimistic,” Salehi told reporters afterwards.
But a senior Iranian official doubted whether a deal would be reached this week as there were gaps on some important issues, although the atmosphere at the talks was good. Kerry has urged Iran to make concessions that would allow the sides to reach a political framework agreement for a nuclear deal that would lift sanctions in exchange for tight restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear programme and increased monitoring of its atomic sites. The West suspects Tehran of wanting to create an atomic weapons capability. Tehran denies that and says its research is for purely peaceful purposes.