GENEVA— Iranian and international negotiators have concluded three days of dramatic negotiations in Geneva without an agreement to curb Iran's nuclear program and ease damaging economic sanctions. Another round of talks has been set for November 20.
At first, this was a working-level gathering -- a routine interim step in the negotiating process. Then Iran's foreign minister predicted success by Friday night and his counterparts from most of the six United Nations contact group countries interrupted their schedules to fly to Geneva. Among them was U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was on a visit to the Middle East.
Then it all came apart. Whatever agreement Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif thought was imminent was not acceptable to the U.N. group. After negotiating until nearly midnight Friday and beyond midnight Saturday, it fell to the European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to make the announcement.
“After what I think you all know have been three days of intense and constructive discussions, a lot of concrete progress has been achieved, but some differences remain," said Ashton.
She said the negotiators would reconvene in 10 days to try again to reach an agreement.
Tight-lipped on dispute
Ashton and other officials would not identify the points of agreement or dispute. But earlier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the six-nation U.N. contact group was not willing to allow Iran to continue preparing a heavy water reactor at Arak that will be able to make plutonium -- a key ingredient in nuclear bombs. And he said the group wants Iran to reduce its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, another bomb-making agent.
Iran says it has no intention of building a nuclear bomb, but there is a lot of concern in the international community, particularly because Iran has been very secretive about its program, has violated agreements in the past and has built facilities that experts say go beyond what is needed for nuclear power generation and research.
Minister Zarif said he was not disappointed by the outcome of the talks. Hopes had been raised by the improved atmosphere in the first round of talks with Iran's new government three weeks ago, but Zarif said he had expected disagreements to emerge when the two sides got to discussing details.
“What I was looking for was the political will and determination and readiness and good faith in order to end this phase and start implementing this phase," said Zarif. "Of course, we have our differences. That's why we're here. If we had agreed then we didn't need to be here and you didn't need to stay up until one o'clock in the morning to hear us.”
He said all the ministers are “on the same wave length” and have the “impetus to go forward.”
US sees progress
Secretary of State Kerry said there was “significant progress” in these talks and he believes an agreement can be reached in the coming weeks. He also acknowledged the concerns of Israel and of many members of the U.S. Congress, and indicated he will share details of the emerging agreement with them.
Kerry said, “I am convinced that over these next days the reasonable-ness of what we are doing and the reality of what we achieved will be taken into account by those who need to know that that is.”
He said the U.S. and its allies must exhaust all options to peacefully guarantee that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon before there is any talk of military action.
Much of the discussion appears to have dealt with technical issues related to Iran's nuclear program, and regarding which of the many economic sanctions on Iran will be eased. But analyst Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says the negotiators also need to build in incentives to keep any first-phase agreement on track.
“It’s important to have an agreement structured in such a way that each of the two parties continue to have an interest in implementing that agreement each and every month," said Clawson.
But there is still work to be done before there is an agreement to implement - work the negotiators will return to in 10 days.