GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - Iran's supreme leader says Tehran will not retreat on what he called the country's nuclear rights during negotiations with six world powers that resumed Wednesday in Geneva.
Speaking ahead of the latest round of talks on Iran's nuclear program, Ayatollah Ali Khameni said he set "red lines" for his negotiators, but also that Iran wants to be friendly with all nations, including the United States.
The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, along with Germany, want an interim agreement that calls for Iran to stop some of its enrichment activity and accept more inspections in return for limited sanctions relief.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Wednesday. It is the third time in five weeks that the international team, led by the European Union, has gathered in Geneva to meet with Iran's foreign minister and his team.
They nearly reached agreement 10-days ago, and European Union spokesman Michael Mann said it could happen this time, but he was not making any promises.
“There are key issues that have to be sorted out, and we will take the time that it takes to try and sort those out,” Mann said in an interview with VOA's Persian service.
Last time, Zarif criticized the U.N. negotiators for changing course, a move widely attributed to French insistence on some key points.
But during a stop in Italy on his way here, Zarif expressed optimism for this round.
“I go to Geneva with the determination to come out with an agreement at the end of this round," he said. "I'm sure that, with the necessary political will, we can certainly make progress and even reach an agreement.”
Iran claims a right to enrich uranium, a potentially dangerous process which the United States says does not exist for any country, although the international community accepts many countries' peaceful nuclear programs.
In an Internet video released on Tuesday, Zarif had a line that gave some analysts hoped for a solution to that dispute.
“Rights are not granted," he said. "And since they are not granted, they cannot be seized.”
That could imply that Iran would not insist on an explicit acknowledgment of a right to enrich, as long as any agreement did not prevent it from enriching, analysts said.
“It will be a very tricky task of finding exactly the right wording that does essentially allow Iran to save face and go back to its people and say that it has really maintained its national independence and sovereignty,” said Alison Baily, a Middle East analyst for the consulting firm Oxford Analytica in London.
Uranium enrichment is important for generating power and for medical research, two things Iran says it wants to do with its nuclear program. But taken to the extreme, enrichment can create weapons-grade uranium.
Iran has come close to producing that, and built extensive, secure and previously secret enrichment facilities, raising fears it wants to build a nuclear bomb, although Iranian officials say they have no such intention.
That resulted in severe international economic sanctions intended to convince Iran's government to negotiate an end to that part of its nuclear program, and allow inspections to prove it.
The hardship caused by the sanctions was a key issue in June, when Iranian voters elected the relatively moderate government that is now pursuing negotiations.
The immediate goal is a first-stage accord that officials say would freeze Iran's program, and roll back parts of it, in return for limited sanctions relief.
That would probably involve the release of some Iranian money held in international banks, but not any easing of trade embargoes or banking restrictions.
Then negotiations would begin on an expected six-month timetable to try to reach a full agreement to verifiably limit Iran's nuclear program and gradually end all sanctions.
If the negotiations fail, there is a danger that Iran will come so close to being able to build a nuclear bomb that the United States or Israel will decide to take military action to prevent the final steps.
But that could trigger a regional war, and experts say would only delay Iran's program, not end it.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Tuesday these negotiations were a test of whether armed conflict could be avoided, and he called it a test worth conducting
“Let's test, the proposition that over the next six months we can resolve this in a diplomatic fashion while maintaining the essential sanctions architecture and, as President of the United States, me maintaining all options to prevent them from getting nuclear weapons," he said.