London, Asharq Al-Awsat—US Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Vienna on Sunday in a bid to revitalize international talks between world powers and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, ahead of a looming deadline for a final settlement.
Analysts say both sides are likely to seek to extend the July 20 deadline, which was originally set as part of an interim deal negotiated at the end of last year, though diplomats from the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) declined to speculate on the matter.
“Obviously we have some very significant gaps still, so we need to see if we can make some progress,” Kerry told reporters before a meeting with the leader of the EU’s delegation, Baroness Catherine Ashton, who is chairing the talks. “It is vital to make certain that Iran is not going to develop nuclear weapons, that their program is peaceful. That’s what we are here trying to achieve.”
Kerry was joined in Vienna on Sunday by his counterparts from the UK, France, and Germany, while Russia and China were represented by senior diplomats.
An American official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that “there are substantial differences in the positions of both sides regarding some of the issues, such as uranium enrichment.”
Iran insists its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, despite fears in the US and elsewhere that its construction of facilities to enrich uranium—which can be used to produce reactor fuel as well as the core of an atomic warhead—poses a threat.
Last week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Islamic Republic needed to maintain an industrial-scale uranium enrichment capability, which some Western analysts say may prove to be an obstacle to a final settlement.
While many Western media outlets have focused on the chances of striking a deal by July 20, or the possibility of extending the deadline, the Iranian press has concentrated on the difficult decisions both sides will have to make to reach a final, comprehensive agreement.
In Iran, the Arman, Ettela’a, Iran, Jomhouri-Eslami and Aftab newspapers, which are published in Tehran, all reported a four-hour meeting between US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Saturday.
The papers quoted Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi as saying the two sides had agreed on 60 to 65 percent of the text of the comprehensive nuclear agreement. However, Araqchi added that “the remaining contentious issues carry significant weight, and we have not achieved any progress in this round of negotiations.”
The Shargh daily, meanwhile, dedicated the main headline of its Sunday edition to the nuclear issue and the ongoing negotiations. The report included a question on whether the negotiations were on the verge of a comprehensive agreement, or whether they had reached a dead-end.
Despite the slow progress of the talks, some Iranian analysts remain optimistic about the outcome. Hermidas Bavand, an academic and expert on international affairs told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We cannot say that the negotiations have reached a dead-end. If the experts on both sides had failed to reach agreement and the negotiations were not positive, the foreign ministers of the European countries would not have participated with the aim of reaching a comprehensive agreement.”
Bavand added: “I think the negotiations will result in a tangible outcome within the remaining time. The statements recently made by the parties in the negotiations focused on the search for the weak points in the negotiations and ways to overcome them, rather than issuing threats to Iran, which is a good sign in international negotiations.”