LONDON— Amid the Crimea controversy, Russian and Western negotiators sat together Tuesday in Vienna for the next round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin called on his parliament to annex Crimea, in defiance of Western warnings not to, senior Russian diplomats sat with American and other Western officials to work on the Iran nuclear issue.
The international negotiating team is made up of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, and is led by the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has issued strong condemnations of Russia’s actions in Crimea.
But her spokesman, Michael Mann, says the Crimea controversy is not affecting the Iran talks.
"The great joy of these discussions so far is that the E3+3 [P5+1] has always remained united and that is still the case," he said. "I have not seen any negative effect at all. We will continue our good work in a unified fashion."
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had a similar assessment, saying all six countries representing the United Nations “remain completely united” and are “very cohesive” on the Iran nuclear issue. The official expressed the hope that “whatever happens in the days ahead” regarding Russia and Crimea “will not put these negotiations at risk.”
The aim of the Vienna talks is to reach a comprehensive agreement to guarantee Iran’s nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes, as Iran says it is. Many countries and experts believe Iran is developing the capability to build a nuclear bomb.
The talks follow on from an agreement reached in Geneva in November, which expires in July. U.N. and U.S. officials say Iran is fulfilling its commitments under that accord, including the dilution of its stockpile of near weapons-grade uranium to a safer level. The United States and other countries have responded with limited relief from economic sanctions, as agreed.
The senior officials have been meeting monthly for several days, with lower-level technical specialists meeting more frequently. Experts say they do not expect any agreement until very close to the deadline, if one can be reached at all.
Everyone involved emphasizes how difficult the issues are, including international demands for even more intrusive inspections and the dismantling of some Iranian nuclear facilities. The U.N. team also wants to discuss Iran’s missile program, which the Iranian negotiators say should not be part of these discussions.
EU spokesman Michael Mann says, “I would not like to make any predictions about how things are going to go because we have said all along that these are going to be very complicated and difficult negotiations.
"So, we will keep pushing on," he added. "The most important thing is that a deal is done that is a good, solid deal that everyone can live with and everyone is happy with. And clearly to do that as quickly as possible is also important. But it is the quality of the deal that counts.”
Earlier, the senior U.S. official declined to discuss specifics of the talks, but said they are “moving forward in a positive way” and that all parties are “intent on succeeding” before the deadline.