World powers began two days of talks with Iran in Geneva on Thursday, hoping to reach a “first step” deal over Tehran’s nuclear programme, although both sides said a breakthrough was far from certain.
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed guarded optimism that an agreement to start resolving the decade-old dispute would be reached in Geneva this week. “If everyone tries their best we may have one,” he told reporters. “We expect serious negotiations,” he said after a breakfast meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is coordinating talks with Iran on behalf of six major powers. But Zarif added on his Facebook page that the negotiations would be “very difficult”.
The United States and its allies say they are encouraged by Tehran’s shift to friendlier rhetoric since the June election of President Hassan Rouhani. Following years of hostility, Rouhani has promised to try to repair relations ties with the West and win relief from sanctions which are crippling the Iranian economy.
But the Western allies say Iran must back its words with action and take concrete steps to scale back its atomic work, which they suspect has military aims, a charge Tehran denies.
“What we’re looking for is a first phase, a first step, an initial understanding that stops Iran’s nuclear programme from moving forward and rolls it back for the first time in decades,” a senior US official said on the eve of the talks.
That would help buy time needed for Iran and the powers — the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — to reach a broader diplomatic settlement in a dispute that could otherwise plunge West Asia into a new war.
The six nations want Iran to suspend its most sensitive uranium enrichment efforts, reduce its stockpile of such material and diminish its capacity to produce it in the future.