Marathon Talks Held as Iranian Nuclear Negotiations Enter Final Round

All sides express optimism that an agreement could be reached by end of March.

AFP

All sides to the Iran nuclear negotiations expressed optimism on Thursday night that an agreement could be reached in the five days remaining until the end of March.

The diplomats were talking at the end of the first day of talks in the crucial final round of negotiations between Iran and the six world powers in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In Tehran, Iranian President Hassan Rohani held a marathon series of telephone conversations with the leaders of most of the participating countries, in an attempt to overcome the outstanding differences.

Rohani initiated calls with French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. He also sent missives to the leaders of all the countries party to the talks, including U.S. President Barak Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in which he detailed the Iranian position and urged the powers to be flexible.

The conversation between Rohani and Cameron was the first ever between the two. They agreed that it was possible to reach a framework agreement on the Iranian nuclear project, according to a statement issued by Cameron's bureau.

"Both leaders stressed that they were committed to reaching an agreement and signaled clearly that they believe that there is an opportunity to reach such an agreement," the statement said.

Both Cameron and Hollande told Rohani that Iran should accept the deal proposed by the powers, which would ensure that Iran's nuclear program will be for peaceful purposes only and will be under close international monitoring, according to their bureaus.

For his part, the Iranian president clarified that Iran was not interested in a military nuclear program and repeated the ruling by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khameini forbidding the manufacturing of nuclear weapons.

"The lifting of sanctions against Iran is an essential condition for a nuclear agreement," Rohani told Cameron and Hollande. "We need to seize the opportunity."

During the first day of the talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met twice with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, for a total of some four hours.

There were also two meetings between U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

Salehi, who is believed to be close to the supreme leader and to be acting as his representative at the negotiations, also expressed optimism at the prospects of reaching an agreement before March 31.

"We have reached understanding on the technical issues," Salehi told Iranian journalists in Lausanne.

Alongside the ministerial-level meetings on Thursday, the heads of the negotiating teams also met and a plenary meeting was held comprising the heads of the negotiating teams of all the sides.

The Associated Press reported that the U.S. was considering a compromise proposal whereby Iran would be allowed to continue the operation of several hundred centrifuges in the underground and fortified facility in Fordo. The original intention of the powers was for the Fordo facility to be used for research and development purposes only and for the centrifuges that are currently there to be removed.

According to the report, Iran would not be allowed to use the centrifuges for uranium enrichment, but for the distillation of other materials for medical use. In return, the Americans are demanding that Iran reduce the number of centrifuges it operates at the main uranium enrichment site in Natanz.

They are also demanding that the R&D of advanced centrifuges at various site around Iran be limited – a demand raised by France and Israel.

Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, who met earlier in the week with the negotiating team heads of France and Britain, said in an interview with the Financial Times on Wednesday that failure to limit Iranian R&D on advanced centrifuges would result in Iran being able to reduce the time it needed to enrich uranium to weapons-level to the production of sufficient uranium for one nuclear weapon every four or five months.