GENEVA -- After three days of intense talks, capped by the longest top level negotiations in decades between the United States and Iran, major world powers failed to agree with Iran on an accord to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program, which many fear could lead to an atomic bomb.
They agreed to hold more high level talks again in 10 days for another attempt to complete a deal.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said an agreement can be reached after further talks.
“I can tell without any exaggeration that we not only narrowed differences and clarified those that remained, but we made significant progress in approaches to this question of how one reins in a program in a way that guarantees its peaceful nature,” he told reporters in a 2 a.m. appearance Sunday.
Earlier, the European Union’s senior diplomat, Catherine Ashton, said there had been a “lot of progress and concrete achievements,” but “some differences remain” between the two sides.
Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, said he was “not disappointed at all” with the negotiations, because it was “a very good meeting,” and “we’re all on the same wavelength.”
French objections to a draft accord appeared to be the major stumbling block, but the decision by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to publicly criticize the draft in a radio interview suggested pique with the United States, Britain and Germany over the preparations for the talks.
Asked if the United States was “blindsided” by Fabius, Kerry said the U.S. worked very closely with France and that the language concerning a reactor Iran is building at Arak had been “bracketed” pending clarification in the talks.
The early morning press appearances capped three tumultuous days of negotiations that seemed to put the two sides within striking distance of an agreement.
Kerry said he did not think the additional time would give Israel, Persian Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia and congressional critics of the administration policy a chance to delay an accord.
He said opponents had to “stop and think what happens each day you don’t have an agreement,” referring to Iran continuing its enrichment of uranium and the acquisition of additional centrifuges to enrich still more uranium.
He said diplomacy had to be exhausted and alluded to the Bush administration invasion of Iraq based on faulty intelligence that the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had acquired weapons of mass destruction.
“Members of Congress know you need diplomacy to exhaust all remedies available . . . if you are going to ultimately exercise your ultimate option, and that is the use of force. The world needs to know that it is a last resort, not a first resort,” he said.
Kerry broke off a swing through the Middle East and North Africa and flew here from Israel Friday afternoon for what he said was an attempt to “close the gap” and reach an interim agreement with Iran. Foreign secretaries from Britain, France and Germany also flew here on short notice, and were joined Saturday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov early Saturday afternoon, and Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Chinese Baodong Li.
From the moment of Kerry’s arrival, expectations rose and fell like a roller coaster.
Joined by Ashton, Kerry met for five hours Friday with Zarif, with the talks lasting until shortly before midnight – possibly the longest negotiations between the two countries since Iran’s 1979 revolution –at the European Union’s mission to the U.N. in Geneva.
The marathon talks, which had been due to end Friday afternoon, resumed Saturday at 8 a.m. at Geneva’s Intercontinental Hotel, where nearly all the delegations are staying. Kerry first met with Ashton, then sat down with Ashton and Zarif.
There were additional consultations with the six world powers represented – the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany – and finally, a session with Iran and the six powers that ran until after 12:25 a.m. Sunday morning.
The State Department issued terse updates, saying only who was meeting with whom and for how long they met but giving no hint of what was said or the actual state of the negotiations.
The arrival of top ministers from the six world powers raised expectations that a deal was in the offing, but the prospects appeared doomed from early Saturday when Fabius, France’s foreign minister, called a French radio station to complain publicly about the draft being circulated, implying that France was at loggerheads with its negotiating partners. He said France would not accept the draft agreement because it did not put sufficient curbs on a heavy water reactor not yet completed at Arak, which would produce plutonium, a component that can be used in an atomic bomb.
Fabius also complained that the accord under discussion did not require Iran to reduce its big stockpile of low enriched uranium, and, most critically, a stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 per cent purity, which with additional enrichment could be used in a nuclear weapon. Fabius said the 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of middle enriched uranium should be reduced in purity to 5 per cent.
“We are for an agreement, that’s clear,” he told the radio station. “But the agreement has got to be serious and credible. The initial text made progress but not enough," he said, adding the France should avoid falling for “a fool’s game.”
France has played the role of hardliner in the negotiations to date, but it wasn’t clear if Fabius was seeking improvements in the agreement under discussion or to prevent an agreement from coming about. Arak is not in operation and will not be until well into 2014, and experts say it would have to be in full production for a year before it can produce enough spent fuel that can be used to extract plutonium.
“Arak represents a long term proliferation risk, not a short term risk, and can be addressed in the ‘final phase’ of negotiations,” said Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association in Washington. He added that there are other means of preventing nuclear proliferation other than halting construction, among them to remove the spent fuel to a third country, or to convert it to a light water reactor.