US Secretary of State John Kerry and fellow foreign ministers are attempting to advance troubled nuclear talks with Iran as a deadline looms for a pact meant to curb programmes Tehran could turn to making atomic arms.
The deadline for talks is July 20 but deep differences still exist and an extension would give more time to negotiate a deal that would limit the scope of such programmes in exchange for a full lifting of nuclear-related sanctions imposed on Tehran.
“Obviously we have some very significant gaps still, so we need to see if we can make some progress,” Mr Kerry said before a meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is convening the talks in Vienna.
“It is vital to make certain that Iran is not going to develop nuclear weapons, that their programme is peaceful. That’s what we are here trying to achieve.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said “positions are still far apart,” and the ministers had come to “try and narrow differences”.
Britain and Germany also sent their foreign ministers to Vienna for talks over the next few days, as has Iran. But the top diplomats from China and Russia are sending lower-ranking officials instead.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi spoke on Saturday of “huge and deep” differences. But he told Iranian TV that “if no breakthrough is achieved, it doesn’t mean that (the) talks have failed”.
Discussions centre on imposing long-term restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment and against plutonium production – materials usable in nuclear warheads. In exchange, the US and other powers would scrap a series of trade and oil sanctions against Tehran.
In Iran, hardliners oppose almost any concession by moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s government.
Outside of the negotiation, regional rivals of Iran including Israel and Saudi Arabia, are extremely sceptical of any arrangement that would, in their view, allow the Islamic republic to escape international pressure while moving closer to the nuclear club.
Iran says its programme is solely for peaceful energy production and medical research purposes, though much of the world fears it is a covert effort toward nuclear weapons capability.