Iran N-talks virtually stalled, deadline may be missed

Reuters/AFP — June 13, 2015

Nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers have virtually stalled and a deadline for a final deal may have to be postponed again, Russian news agency TASS quoted a diplomatic source as saying on Friday.

Iran and the powers — the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — are trying to reach a settlement by June 30 under which Iran would curb its nuclear programme in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. The United States has said it stands by the end-June deadline for the deal, meant to assuage Western fears that Iran is working to develop a nuclear bomb.

But other officials have indicated the date might be missed as negotiations about technical details drag on. Iran denies any ambition to develop nuclear weapons and says its programme is for generating electricity and other peaceful purposes. The latest round of discussions in Vienna on Friday had made no significant progress, the source from one of the missions said, according to TASS.

“The process has virtually stalled, there is risk that deadline will have to be postponed again,” TASS said the source added. Among the unresolved issues are the pace of easing Western sanctions imposed over the Iranian programme and the monitoring and verification measures to ensure Iran could not pursue a clandestine nuclear weapons programme. Moreover, Russia’s negotiator said Friday there has been a “very worrying” slowdown in progress in nuclear talks between Iran and six major powers ahead of a June 30 deadline to finalise a historic accord. “The rate of progress is progressively slowing down,” Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying as he arrived for the latest round of talks in Vienna.

“This is very worrying to us because there is very little time before the deadline and we urgently need to enter the final stage.” Another Russian agency, ITAR-TASS, quoted a diplomatic source as saying that the talks — which were ongoing late Friday — are “practically stuck. There is a risk that the deadline will be extended again”.

In April, Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany agreed in Lausanne, Switzerland to the outlines of a deal aimed at ending the decade-old standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme. According to this framework, due to be finalised by June 30, Iran will dramatically scale down its nuclear activities in order to render any dash to making nuclear weapons all but impossible.

In return Iran, which denies wanting nuclear weapons, will see painful sanctions lifted by the six powers — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. On Thursday French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that in particular the issue of tighter UN inspections of Iran’s remaining facilities after the mooted deal was not yet sewn up. “The talks are supposed to wrap up on June 30. We have not yet completed our negotiations,” Fabius, seen as something of a hawk in the talks, told French channel BFMTV and radio station RMC.

“If we want to be sure that the accord is solid we need to be able to inspect the sites… We don’t yet have this certainty. This is one of the points we are discussing,” he said. “The agreement needs to be verifiable, solid, robust and right now we don’t have such a guarantee.” Under the hoped-for deal the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), would keep even closer tabs on Iran. Iran though is uneasy about this since it would potentially include the IAEA going to sites — including military ones — where it suspects undeclared nuclear activity might be taking place.

Other sticking points are thought to be the procedure for handling possible deal violations and an IAEA probe into allegations of past Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. The six powers have said they will only lift sanctions once Iran has taken certain steps and want to retain the ability to “snap back” sanctions if the Islamic republic breaks the agreement. The deal is also highly complex, comprising a main document of around 20 pages plus five “annexes” totalling an additional 40-50 pages, Iran’s lead negotiator Abbas Araghchi said last Saturday.

“Each word of this instrument is being discussed and sometimes quarrelled on,” he said. “There are differences but work moves forward.” On Wednesday a US official said that the final stretch would be “pretty tough”. “You are all well familiar with the roller coaster ride of these negotiations and we all expected that this will get more difficult,” the official told reporters. Meanwhile on Thursday it emerged that authorities in Switzerland and Austria — which have hosted most of the past 18 months of talks — were investigating possible spying on the negotiations.

This came after Russia-based security firm Kaspersky Lab said a malware dubbed Duqu, a sophisticated spy tool that was believed to have been eradicated in 2012, appeared to have been used to spy on the talks. The Swiss attorney general’s office said it launched a probe on May 6 and conducted a raid six days later, seizing computer equipment, due to “suspicion of illegal intelligence services operating in Switzerland”. Israel, widely assumed to have nuclear weapons itself and which has major misgivings about the mooted deal, denied any involvement. “We’ve taken steps throughout the negotiations to ensure that confidential details and discussions remain behind closed doors,” US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said.

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