The fate of nuclear talks between Iran and the six global powers, which unexpectedly entered their third day on Saturday, hangs in a balance, as both sides test the limits to which they can compromise their positions, without alienating their domestic constituencies.
The high-powered presence of six foreign ministers from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — all capable of taking decisions beyond the reach of officials involved in the negotiating process — was itself an illustration that the possibility for a final push to seal a deal was being explored. Yet, the final outcome of the diplomatic overdrive in Geneva is far from certain, prompting British Foreign Secretary, William Hague to exhort all the parties to “seize the moment”. "We are very conscious of the fact that real momentum has built up in these negotiations and there is now real concentration on these negotiations and so we have to do everything we can to seize the moment," said Mr. Hague.
It appeared later in the day that France had become a stumbling block in the emergence of a deal. Reuters quoted a diplomat as saying: "The Americans, the EU and the Iranians have been working intensively together for months on this proposal, and this is nothing more than an attempt by (French Foreign Minister Laurent) Fabius to insert himself into relevance late in the negotiations."
Iran’s deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said that talks were likely to end later on Saturday, and resume at a later date.
With time running out, negotiations were being held at a frenetic pace. On Friday night, the Foreign Minister of Iran, Javad Zarif closeted with EU foreign policy chief Catharine Ashton and US Secretary of State John Kerry for nearly five hours to breathe fresh life into talks, which seemed to be stalling after a promising start. With complications arising, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov decided to dash across to Geneva to lend his weight to a reachable but still-elusive agreement. The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, also decided to join the conclave — a development that might comfort the Iranians, who have found quality support from Beijing and Moscow in the run up to the talks.
Iran’s FNA reported that the trio — Mr. Zarif, Ms. Ashton and Mr. Kerry — met again for another round of talks on Saturday. The Iranian side also held a round of crucial “quadrilateral” with Foreign Ministers of Germany and Britain along with the EU foreign policy. FNA quoted an “informed source” as saying that the fresh burst of diplomatic energy was yielding results, and that “Germany and Britain have declared their support for the general trend of the negotiations”. However, the omission of France in this meeting was significant.
The Geneva parleys have been structured from the beginning to define the starting point as well the end game of the dialogue, so that a framework accommodating a series of reciprocal steps, culminating in a final deal, probably at the end of six months, can be established.
To kick start a preliminary agreement during the current round, Iran has agreed to halt expansion of its nuclear programme. Russia Today reported that Iran has agreed to suspend production of uranium, enriched to a 20 per cent level. This is in response to Western fears that enrichment up to 20 per cent brings Tehran closer to atomic bomb, which requires uranium refined to 90 per cent purity or more.
However, the definition of an end-game appears to have emerged as a major stumbling block. The Iranians have repeatedly said that they would not give up enrichment, which is their “right,” in conformity with the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which they have signed. RT is reporting that the Iran would be ready to limit enrichment up to 5 per cent purity, which may be sufficient to run atomic power plants that Tehran wishes to establish in the future, but grossly insufficient to develop a bomb. In the past, hawks within the American and Israeli establishments have demanded that Iran should cease all enrichment activity, or face the consequences of ever-tightening sanctions, if not worse.
The Iranians also appear ready to freeze installation, and limit the use of centrifuges that are used for enrichment work, but, it is unlikely that they would commit themselves to scale down the size of their enrichment capability at the beginning of the talks.
Iran’s interlocutors are demanding that Tehran should halt construction activity at the site of the Arak heavy water reactor, which, when completed, can yield plutonium — another source for making a bomb.
Iran wants to trade of its confidence building steps with a firm commitment from the global powers on significant sanctions relief.
Iran’s Mehr news agency quoted Majid Takt-Ravanchi, a member of the negotiating team, as saying that Iran was looking for an easing of the oil and banking sanctions that have been imposed on Tehran during the first phase of the deal. These sanctions have caused a substantial reduction in Iran’s energy exports, which are the country’s economic lifeline.