‘Hard work’ still needed as nuclear talks begin
VIENNA - US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran's foreign minister both warned Saturday of "hard work" ahead as they sought to seal a historic deal after almost two years of intense diplomatic effort.
"We've a lot of hard work to do. There are some very tough issues, and I think we all look forward to getting down to the final efforts here to see whether or not a deal is possible," Kerry said at the start of talks with Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna.
"I think everybody would like to see an agreement. But we have to work through some difficult issues," Kerry added before reporters left the room, saying he was "hopeful".
Zarif said negotiators "need to work really hard in order to be able to make progress and move forward.
"We are determined to do everything we can to be able to make this effort possible. Of course, that depends on a lot of things and we're going to work on it," Zarif added.
Days before a June 30 deadline that officials admit may slip a few days, diplomats say the mooted accord finalising a framework accord agreed in April in Lausanne, Switzerland by Iran and six major powers is far from done.
"Some major problems exist which are still blocking the work... but in other areas we have made good progress," Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said Friday.
This was echoed by a Western diplomat, who said that several key issues remain "extremely problematic".
"The most difficult issues need to be resolved in the coming days: transparency, inspections, PMD (possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme), sanctions... On the major issues there is major disagreement," the diplomat said.
A deal, it is hoped, would put an end to a standoff dating back to 2002 that has threatened to escalate into war and has poisoned the Islamic republic's relations with the outside world.
In return for downsizing its activities and allowing closer UN inspections, Iran, which denies wanting nuclear weapons, would see the progressive lifting of UN and Western sanctions that have choked its economy.
Even if negotiators manage a deal, it will be closely scrutinised by hardliners in Iran and the United States, as well as Iran's regional rivals Israel, widely assumed to have nuclear weapons itself, and Saudi Arabia.
According to the Lausanne framework, Iran will slash by more than two-thirds its uranium enrichment centrifuges, which can make fuel for nuclear power or the core of a nuclear bomb, and shrink its uranium stockpile by 98 percent.
Iran also agreed to change a planned reactor at Arak so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium and no longer to use its Fordo facility -- built into a mountain to protect it from attack -- for uranium enrichment.
But on Tuesday Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, set out key "red lines" for the final agreement that appeared to go against parts of what was agreed in Lausanne.
These included the timing of sanctions relief and UN access to military bases, needed to investigate claims of past bomb-making efforts and to probe any future suspicious activity.
Arms Control Association analyst Kelsey Davenport said that although the comments were "unhelpful, they are unlikely to derail the talks".
"(It) is important to remember that Khamenei's 'red lines' have shifted over time and he has made statements in the past that were not always reflected in the outcomes of the negotiations," she said.
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius -- seen as a hardliner in the talks -- was also expected in Vienna along with other foreign ministers from the six powers this weekend.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini will arrive on Sunday, Brussels said.
Negotiators cannot extend the talks too long since under new US legislation Congress must receive a copy of the draft by July 9 otherwise lawmakers will have 60 days to review and vote on the deal instead of 30.