Concerns over what ability to enrich uranium Iran would keep and whether it would maintain its controversial plutonium reactor at Arak remained contentious issues Sunday as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, kicked-off another round of top-level talks.
Both issues are critical to limiting Iran’s ability to quickly develop a nuclear weapon, and must be resolved if Iran and the so-called P5 + 1 nations it’s negotiating with are to reach a long-term agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that would allow the lifting of economic sanctions.
U.S. and Iranian officials have been engaged in intense bilateral talks since Friday, and Sunday the European Union hosted a negotiating session Sunday after the Kerry-Zarif meeting.
The latest U.S.-Iran talks began as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned once again by Twitter that he believed the agreement was dangerous. “I will go to the U.S. next week to explain to American Congress why this agreement is dangerous for Israel, the region and the entire world,” he said.
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Differences over Iran’s nuclear program have chilled relations between the Obama administration and Netanyahu. Those tensions will be on full display when Netanyahu appears before Congress March 3.
The talks that began Sunday have entered what Kerry on Saturday described as a “very technical” stage, underscored by the presence of U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz, a nuclear physicist whose government department oversees U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories.
“We are pushing to try to come to agreement on some very difficult issues,” Kerry said. “There are still significant gaps. There is still a distance to travel.”
Kerry said the Obama administration remains intent on having at least the outlines of a deal by the end of March, two months in advance of a June 30 deadline to complete an agreement that had been set by Iran and the P5 + 1 negotiating parties, which include the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China – and Germany.
Kerry said that failure to reach “a fundamental political outline and agreement” by March 31 “would be an indication that fundamental choices are not being made.”
“President Obama is fully prepared to stop these talks if he feels that they’re not being met with the kind of productive decision making necessary to prove that a program is, in fact, peaceful,” Kerry said.
Meanwhile, the Iranian Fars news agency reported that Zarif said Saturday that Iran would not agree to an “incomplete and vague” interim accord. “No other deal will be made before a complete agreement is clinched,” the agency quoted him as saying.
Negotiators set the June 30 deadline for a final accord last November after missing two earlier deadlines for completing a final accord.
Under a Nov. 23, 2013 deal reached in Geneva between the P5+1 and Iran, Tehran agreed to halt some of its enrichment activities and freeze work on some controversial facilities in exchange for easing of some sanctions.
Wang Qun, China’s chief negotiator here, told reporters that the two sides are still deadlocked over the number and kinds of centrifuges Iran will be allowed and what is to become of Iran’s controversial heavy water reactor at Arak, where work has been frozen. But he said he believed the United States and Iran were “taking steps toward each other as far as uranium enrichment is concerned.”