VIENNA/tehran: Iran will never slow down its nuclear research programme, its supreme leader said yesterday as negotiators from Tehran and six world powers struggled to narrow “significant gaps” that the United States warned might be insurmountable.
The stakes in a deal are high on both sides. Western powers, along with Russia and China, want to prevent chronic tensions in the Middle East from boiling over into a wider war or triggering a regional nuclear arms race. Iran, for its part, is keen to be rid of international sanctions hobbling its oil-based economy.
Clerical supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the Islamic Republic’s negotiating team in Vienna should not yield to issues “forced upon them”.
“These negotiations should continue,” he told nuclear scientists in Tehran, the official IRNA news agency reported. “But all should know that negotiations will not stop or slow down any of Iran’s activities in nuclear research and development.”
Tehran denies suspicions that it has used its declared civilian atomic energy programme as a front for covertly developing the means to make nuclear weapons, maintaining that it seeks only electricity from its enrichment of uranium.
Negotiators from Iran and the so-called P5-plus-one — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — plan after their two days of talks in Vienna to start drafting a long-term agreement on settling their decade-old nuclear dispute by a self-imposed deadline of July 20.
They will begin their next round of talks in the Austrian capital on May 13, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, coordinating the talks for the powers, told reporters while standing next to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif.
“A lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences,” she said after the April 8-9 meeting ended. “We will aim to bridge the gaps in all the key areas.” A senior US administration official told reporters: “Now we are set to start drafting. At this point we don’t know if we’ll be successful in bridging those gaps.”.
Russia’s chief negotiator, however, suggested progress had been achieved on how to resolve concerns about Iran’s planned Arak research reactor. Tehran says is a facility designed to produce radio-isotopes for medical treatments; the West suspects it will be geared to yielding plutonium for atomic bombs.
“The possibility of a compromise on this issue has grown,” Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying. “Centimetre by centimetre, drop by drop, we are moving forward. In general there is a positive dynamic.”
Zarif said more than half of the issues had been sorted out.
“We have agreement over 50 to 60 percent of the (final) draft ... but the remaining parts are very important and contain various issues,” Zarif told reporters.
The US official, however, had a somewhat different view: “The only thing that matters at the end of the day is to get to the agreement ... Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
Iran says that its ballistic missile programme, banned under sanctions the UN Security Council imposed over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment, would not be discussed in the talks.
“The Iranians clearly have a sense of urgency to get a deal done, as does the P5+1 (the six powers),” a senior diplomat close to the talks said, but “there are still some significant gaps.”
The toughest issues to be tackled are Iran’s future uranium enrichment capacity, nuclear facilities that Western powers believe have little or no civilian value, future nuclear research as well as the sequencing of steps to remove the international sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.