Iran nuclear talks falter as France again demands ‘tough stance’


McClatchy Foreign Staff

France demanded Thursday that the United States and its allies show “firmness” in negotiating with Iran, injecting new uncertainty into the high-stakes talks to curb Iran’s nuclear program, which earlier had appeared to be on the verge of agreement.

Echoing his statement of two weeks ago, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a television interview that agreement with Iran “can only be possible based on firmness.” He said Iran had failed to accept an offer drafted by the United States, France and four other countries after France’s last intervention and added: “I hope they will accept it.”

Two weeks ago, Fabius said in a radio interview that the agreement must be “serious and credible” and France would not play a “fool’s game.” His statement appeared to take a slice at the Obama administration, which had a key role in drafting the accord.

The talks in Geneva, the third set in just five weeks, are intended to reach an interim accord for the next six months, during which a comprehensive agreement would be negotiated to curb Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program. That program has generated a stockpile of low-enriched uranium for which Iran has no apparent need, and 200 kilograms – 440 pounds – of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity, a few steps short of the grade needed in a nuclear weapon.

Iranian officials were highly critical of France, but didn’t attack French officials directly. Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, told Iranian reporters that differences of opinion among the six countries in the previous round had slowed the negotiations and eroded the Iranian side’s trust that its negotiating partners would remain committed to potential agreements.

“We expect the West to have a united stance over the draft,” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the head of the delegation, told Iranian state television.

Araqchi also said any deal must accept Iran’s right under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium if it’s used for peaceful purposes, which the U.S. has been unwilling to acknowledge explicitly. But he hedged his demand, saying the extent, level and location of enrichment were negotiable.

One European official, speaking only anonymously as a condition of the news briefing, spoke of “noise coming from various directions” but declined to say how it had affected the negotiations.

At Iran’s demand, the structure of the negotiations shifted Thursday to direct talks between Zarif and Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, who heads the negotiating team on behalf of the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. The Ashton-Zarif talks lasted four and a half hours and were “very substantial discussions,” a top U.S. official said, also speaking only anonymously as a condition of the briefing. They were “totally focused on digging into the details of the negotiations and working to make progress,” the official said.

It wasn’t clear why France issued its latest public admonition about the talks, but at least one well-informed observer said France was unhappy with the leading role played by the Obama administration, which has made a major political bet that there’s a diplomatic way to avoid Iran developing a nuclear weapon.

France had been a “big proliferator” and had provided the technology and equipment that allowed Israel to develop a nuclear program, said Tariq Rauf, a former senior official at the International Atomic Energy Agency. He said the French support of the Israeli nuclear program had been intended to “make life difficult for the United States” and that France also was seeking defense contracts from Iran’s chief rivals among major Arab countries in the Persian Gulf.

In an unusual gesture of good will, a Farsi-speaking State Department official briefed Iranian reporters and told them that Secretary of State John Kerry was on standby and ready to fly to Geneva in case the talks appear likely to end in a deal.

European officials said Kerry’s counterparts from Britain, France, Germany and Russia would join him, should he come. China sent a high-ranking minister to the talks, which began Wednesday evening. Friday’s negotiations, which are expected to begin with another meeting between Ashton and Zarif, seem likely to extend into Saturday.

Kerry’s official daybook listed no appointments for Friday.

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