MUSCAT: Top officials from Iran and six world powers meet in Muscat on Tuesday as fears grow that a hard-fought deal on Iran’s nuclear program may not be reached by this month’s deadline.
The talks come after two days of discussions between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif ended with neither man revealing what remains unsolved in the long-running bid for a comprehensive accord.
Each laid out their demands in over 10 hours of private talks that sought to overcome deep differences, allay mutual suspicion, and bring 12 months of diplomatic brinkmanship to the point of a breakthrough.
Asked if they were making progress, as they appeared briefly for photographers, Zarif replied: “We will eventually.”
Kerry said: “We are working hard. We are working hard.”
On Tuesday the P5+1 powers —made up of the five permanent United Nations Security Council members the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China, plus Germany—will take part in the Muscat talks chaired by former European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, who will see out the nuclear negotiations until November 24.
The six world powers want Iran to reduce the scope of its atomic activities. In exchange, the West is offering to ease punishing economic sanctions imposed since 2012.
US President Barack Obama said on Sunday that a “big gap” remained on how the West can have “verifiable, lock-tight assurances” that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon.
Iran denies it is seeking a bomb and says its nuclear program aims to produce atomic energy to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, requiring a massive increase in its ability to enrich uranium in coming years.
The Iranian delegation is under pressure to deliver a quick and total lifting of US, UN and European sanctions under a final deal. Obama, however, said sanctions would only be “slowly reduced” if Tehran meets its obligations.
The key sticking point is thought to be the number and type of uranium-enriching centrifuges Iran should be allowed to keep spinning in exchange for sanctions relief and rigorous inspections of its nuclear sites.
The duration of a final settlement plan also remains contested, with Iran speaking of five years and world powers suggesting at least double that.
After the talks between Kerry and Zarif ended on Monday, the US State Department said they had proved “tough, direct and serious,” while adding “there is still time” for progress.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi said “no progress” had been made during the two days.
“We can no longer talk about progress in the negotiations, but we are optimistic that we can reach an accord” before November 24, he said, quoted by Iranian news agency ISNA.
Some analysts have said a deal may already be out of reach.