AP - Iran's and America's top nuclear officials joined seven-nation talks Saturday in a move that may help resolve technical disputes standing it the way of a deal meant to curb Tehran's atomic activities in exchange for sanctions relief for the Islamic Republic.
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Technical experts for Iran and the six nations it is negotiating with have been meeting alongside senior political officials. But Saturday was the first time that Iranian Atomic Energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi and U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz also joined in.
Western officials say the U.S. decided to send Moniz only after Iran announced that Salehi will be coming. Still, their presence could improve chances of a deal by fast-tracking complex technical details of constraints on Iran's nuclear programs that are acceptable to Tehran.
They were expected to discuss the number of centrifuges Iran can operate to enrich uranium; how much enriched material it can stockpile; what research and development it may pursue related to enrichment, and the future of a planned heavy water reactor that could produce substantial amounts of plutonium — like enriched uranium, a potential pathway to nuclear arms.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is also at the talks, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry scheduled to join Sunday and Monday.
World powers and Iran have set an end of March deadline for a framework agreement, with four further months for the technical work to be ironed out. The talks have missed two previous deadlines, and President Barack Obama has said a further extension would make little sense without a basis for continuing discussions.
If the talks fail, Obama may be unable to continue holding off Congress from passing new sanctions against Iran. That, in turn, could scuttle any further diplomatic solution to U.S.-led attempts to increase the time Tehran would need to be able to make nuclear arms. Iran denies any interest in such weapons.
Skepticism about the negotiations already is strong among congressional hardliners, Washington's closest Arab allies and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to strongly criticize them in an address the U.S. Congress early next month.