Iran and six major powers are ready to start drafting a long-term agreement on curbing Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief but it is unclear if they will succeed in overcoming disagreements, a U.S. official said on Wednesday.
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"Now we are set to start drafting," the senior administration official told reporters on condition of anonymity at the end of a two-day round of talks in Vienna between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
"At this point we don't know if we'll be successful in bridging those gaps," the official said.
Iran's foreign seemed upbeat about the prospects of reaching a deal, saying his country and the six world powers were in "50 to 60 percent agreement" on the shape of a nuclear deal.
The talks paused until May 13 amid stern warnings from Iran's supreme leader, whose message has varied over the past months between support for the discussions and accusations of bad-faith negotiating on the part of the United States and its allies.
"Our negotiators should not accept any coercive words from the other party," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Iranian nuclear scientists Wednesday in a speech marking Iran's National Day of Nuclear Technology. "The country's nuclear achievements can't be stopped, and no one has the right to bargain over it."
Khamenei said he had authorized nuclear talks with world powers including arch-foe the United States just to prove Iran's peaceful intentions, but Tehran would not be bullied and would not stop atomic research.
He added that Iran should continue the discussions to end a dispute over nuclear work the West fears is aimed at developing a bomb, but Iran's negotiators should not cede any gains made by its nuclear program.
Informal July deadline
Coming out of the talks, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton described them as "substantive and detailed."
She said that "a lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences ahead." But Ashton, who speaks for the six powers, suggested some progress was made and negotiators are now looking to the next round to "bridge the gaps standing in way of a comprehensive agreement."
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, his country's chief negotiator, read the same statement in Farsi. He then told reporters that the two sides were in "50 to 60 percent agreement," adding he expected an informal July deadline for a final deal to be met.
The world powers are offering to remove sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy provided Tehran agrees to strict long-term limits on any nuclear activities that could be used to make a weapon.
The future scope of Iran's uranium enrichment program is the toughest issue.
Iran denies any interest in nuclear arms and argues it needs robust enrichment capacities to make low-enriched reactor fuel. The U.S., Britain, France and Germany want significant cuts, to decrease the chances that the program will be re-engineered to make high-enriched material for atomic arms. Russia and China are somewhere in the middle.
The six also want to eliminate potential proliferation dangers from an enrichment site at Fordo, south of Tehran, that is built far underground to withstand air strikes, and at a nearly built nuclear reactor at Arak, in northwestern Iran, that could produce substantial amounts of plutonium unless it is changed to a model with new specifications.
Like enriched uranium, plutonium can be used for the core of a nuclear weapon.
A first-step deal, in effect since January, has curbed some Iranian nuclear activities in return for limited sanctions relief as the two sides work toward a final agreement. Iranian hardliners fear that end deal will cut too deeply into their country's nuclear program, a source of national pride.
In Tehran, Khamenei sought to dispel such fears.
"These talks need to continue," he said. "But all must know that despite continuation of the talks, activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the field of nuclear research and development won't be halted at all."
He told the group of nuclear scientists that the "Americans are well aware we are not after nuclear weapons, but they still raise the charges every now and then to keep up the anti-Iran hype."
"That's why I agreed to the government's initiative to negotiate, just to break the hype and expose the truth to world opinion," he said, referring to moderate Iranian President Hassan Rohani's diplomatic overture to the West after his landslide election last June.
Khamenei, who wields near absolute power in Iran, warned however that there was a limit to how far the Islamic Republic would go to satisfy its adversaries on the nuclear issue.
"No, our pursuit of nuclear science will never halt. We will not cede any of our gains in nuclear research and development and our negotiators must not allow the other side to bully Iran," he said, as quoted by the official IRNA news agency.
"The decision to negotiate doesn't mean we will backtrack on the issue."
However, the Iranian clerical leader reaffirmed support for diplomacy as a means to settle the long-running nuclear dispute which has cost Iran economically ruinous sanctions.