After a late night of negotiating, European and Iranian foreign ministers and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry resumed their talks early in Geneva Saturday morning, trying to resolve tough issues about the future of Iran's nuclear program and international sanctions designed to curb it.
The talks ended close to midnight, but Secretary Kerry and the European Union's foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton were back at the negotiating table at 8 a.m. (0300 UTC), soon joined by the foreign ministers of France, Britain and Germany. They were preparing for another meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.
Zarif had raised expectations of a deal, saying his country was prepared to address some of the international community's concerns about its nuclear program in return for some relief from crippling economic sanctions. He predicted an agreement by Friday evening in working-level talks.
But that did not happen, and Secretary Kerry and the other foreign ministers flew in on short notice to try to break the impasse. The Russian foreign minister arrived Saturday morning and a Chinese vice-minister was also expected, making it a nearly full ministerial gathering of the six-nation United Nations contact group.
Officials have given few details of the negotiations, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius broke the news blackout Saturday in an interview with France Inter Radio.
Minister Fabius says the contact group wants Iran to delay activation of its new reactor at Arak, which is expected to come online next year. It could produce large quantities of plutonium, a key component in nuclear bombs. He said the U.N. team also wants Iran to reduce the purity of some of its stock of highly enriched uranium, another potential bomb component.
He says Iran wants significant relief from economic sanctions, and the contact group is insisting that Iran's concessions be of the same magnitude.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters the talks have made real progress, but there is no guarantee of success.
“It's certainly not possible to say that we can be sure there will be a deal at the end of today. And if there isn't, of course, then we must continue to apply ourselves in the coming weeks,” said Hague.
Some members of the U.S. Congress have expressed concern about granting any sanctions relief without significant Iranian concessions, and the Israeli prime minister has accused the contact group of giving Iran everything it wanted while getting nothing in return.
The revelations by Foreign Minister Fabius seem to indicate that the U.N. team is making more demands than had previously been thought. But Israel's concern is that Iran could maintain the ability to restart the potentially dangerous parts of its nuclear program.
Iran says it does not want to build a nuclear weapon, but the U.N. Security Council is not convinced, and had demanded that Iran stop producing near weapons-grade nuclear fuel and allow inspections to prove it. The Security Council, the European Union, the United States and many other countries have imposed economic sanctions on Iran to force it to comply, or at least negotiate.
The new Iranian government that took office in July has shown more willingness to do that than the previous government. But it faces opposition from hardliners who oppose any concessions on the nuclear program.
Officials here say that this accord, if it is reached, will only be a first step, and that sanctions would be reimposed and potentially strengthened if it does not work out. But critics say it would be easier for Iran to restart its nuclear fuel enrichment than for the international community to agree to renew comprehensive sanctions.