Iran nuclear talks make some progress, but still differences

Reuters

(Edits, adds quotes from diplomat, U.S. and EU remarks)

* Kerry, other ministers could join, but no travel plans yet

* Iran wants mention of "right to enrich" in any deal

* Diplomat: Talks were "constructive but not conclusive"

* Sceptical U.S. Senate to pursue more Iran sanctions

By John Irish, Parisa Hafezi and Justyna Pawlak

GENEVA, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Iran and six major powers havemade some progress toward an interim deal to curb Tehran'snuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief, but bothsides said on Thursday they still have significant differencesto overcome.

Negotiators appeared to downplay anticipation of an imminentbreakthrough in the three-day talks that began on Wednesdayafter the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain andGermany came close to winning concessions from Iran in the lastround of negotiations two weeks ago.

Several Western diplomats said there was a good chance thatU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would join foreign ministersfrom the other five members of the six nation group in Geneva inanother attempt to nail down a long elusive deal with Iran.

One diplomat saw a "very high probability" of ministerscoming to another meeting, but there were no signs that theministers were making definite travel plans.

A senior European diplomat told reporters the ministerswould only travel to Geneva if there was a deal to sign.

"We have made progress, including core issues," the Europeandiplomat said. "Tomorrow will be important. There are four orfive things still on the table" that need to be resolved.

"There are things (Iran has proposed) that are acceptable,and others that aren't," he said.

Still, he added that the atmosphere was positive, describingThursday's meetings as "constructive but not conclusive." Hesaid no one was suggesting the talks should be broken off andindicated they could run into Saturday.

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi echoed thediplomat's remarks: "We still have some different views on somepoints and until we get closer to final stages, the foreignministers will not come."

Finding common ground on the contours of an accord designedto start removing the risk of Iran developing a nuclear weaponscapability - an intention it denies having - has beencomplicated.

Under discussion is an Iranian suspension of some sensitivenuclear activities, above all medium-level uranium enrichment,in exchange for modest sanctions relief. That would involvereleasing some Iranian funds frozen in foreign bank accounts andallowing trade in precious metals. The United States may alsoagree to relax pressure on other countries not to buy Iranianoil.

The Iranians have made clear they are most interested inresuming oil sales and getting relief from restrictions onIranian banking and financial transactions that have crippledthe oil-dependent economy.

The main disputes appear to include Iran's quest for somerecognition of its "right to enrich," the major powers' demandfor a shutdown of the Arak heavy-water reactor project and theextent of sanctions rollbacks on the table.

A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chiefCatherine Ashton, who is coordinating the talks on behalf of thesix powers, spoke on Twitter of "intense, substantial anddetailed negotiations on #Iran #nuclear programme, conducted ingood atmosphere."

A senior U.S. State Department official said the EU-Iraniantalks "were totally focused on digging into the details of thenegotiations and working to make progress."

The U.S. official said Ashton sought in meetings withIranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to close gapsbetween the two sides.

CRUCIAL U.S.-IRAN ENCOUNTERS

The Iranians held a brief session late on Wednesday with theU.S. delegation, headed by Under Secretary of State forPolitical Affairs Wendy Sherman, a senior State Departmentofficial said, without elaborating.

Despite the presence of the six powers and Ashton, it isultimately Iran and the United States that have the power tomake or break a deal, diplomats said. Relations between the twowere ruptured by Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In a sign of the tensions that exist between the UnitedStates and Iran, the State Department issued one of its periodicadvisories on Thursday warning U.S. citizens to weigh the risksof travel to Iran. It noted that "some elements in Iran remainhostile to the United States" and that "U.S. citizens may besubject to harassment or arrest."

Policymakers from the six major powers have said an interimaccord on confidence-building steps could be within reach todefuse a decade-old stand-off and dispel the spectre of a widerMiddle East war over the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions.

Before negotiations began in earnest on details of theproposal on Thursday, France and Iran cranked up the rhetoric.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who spoke outagainst a draft deal floated at the Nov. 7-9 negotiating round,was asked by France 2 television if there could be a deal.

"I hope so. But this agreement can only be possible based onfirmness. For now the Iranians have not been able to accept theposition of the six. I hope they will accept it."

In what appeared to be a response targeted at France,Araqchi said: "We have lost our trust... We cannot enter serioustalks until the trust is restored. But that doesn't mean that wewill stop negotiations."

Asked how trust could be restored, he said: "If they (thesix powers) create one front, and stick with united words."

For the six powers, an interim deal would mean Iran wouldhave to stop refining uranium to a concentration of 20 percent -a relatively short step away from weapons-grade material -accept more exhaustive U.N. nuclear inspections and mothball theArak reactor, a potential source of weapons-grade plutonium.

"RIGHT TO ENRICH"

Israel has lobbied hard against this formula, saying itoffers Iran too much for too little by leaving its enrichmentinfrastructure intact.

The Israeli criticism has resonated in the U.S. Congress,where sceptics are calling for further U.S. sanctions againstTehran, something President Barack Obama's administration haswarned could derail the negotiations in Geneva.

Despite the concerted diplomacy in Geneva, U.S. SenateMajority Leader Harry Reid said on Thursday he was committed topursuing a tougher Iran sanctions bill when the Senate returnsfrom a holiday recess early next month.

Iran has demanded that the big powers acknowledge its rightto enrich uranium, something the United States, France and otherWestern leaders refuse to do.

Araqchi said "enrichment is our red line but we can discussthe level and the amount" of uranium to be enriched.

A senior member of the Iranian delegation, speaking oncondition of anonymity, said Tehran understood that all oil andbanking sanctions could not be removed "in one go" but thatenrichment was a red line and "we should have a paragraph on it... "If that element is not there, there will be no deal."

Zarif hinted at a possible way around this issue lastweekend - Iran could insist on its own right to enrich uraniumwithout requiring others to explicitly recognise it.

The interim arrangement under consideration calls for asix-month period of sanctions relief for Tehran that would giveIran and the major powers time to craft a broad, permanentaccord.

The United States has said most of the sanctions will remainin place and any temporary sanctions relief would be cancelledif no long-lasting agreement with Tehran is reached, or if theIranians violate the terms of the interim deal. (Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Fredrik Dahl inGeneva, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Arshad Mohammed inWashington; Writing by Louis Charbonneau and John Irish; Editingby Mark Heinrich and Christopher Wilson)

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