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Iranian nuclear talks snag on enrichment 'right'

Switzerland's Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter (L) talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel prior to talks about Iran's nuclear program in Geneva on November 23, 2013
Switzerland's Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter (L) talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel prior to talks about Iran's nuclear program in Geneva on November 23, 2013

The outcome of nuclear talks between Iran and world powers was highly uncertain on Sunday as Tehran stuck to its controversial demand to have its "right" to enrich uranium formally recognised.

Negotiators were continuing to work into the night however ahead of the effective deadline set by the planned departure of US Secretary of State John Kerry from Geneva on Sunday morning.

"We are insisting on our right to enrichment, which should be clearly recognised in the draft agreement," deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted as telling Iranian reporters.

Numerous UN Security Council resolutions since 2006 have demanded Iran suspend all uranium enrichment activities, which has civilian uses but which can also be used in a nuclear weapon.

Western countries fear that formally endorsing Iran's asserted right, at least in the interim deal under discussion in Geneva, will undermine these UN resolutions, which are the legal basis for sanctions.

Araqchi said the negotiations were now in the 11th hour and that "most of the differences of opinion have been resolved". He did not elaborate.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague (2nd R) arrives at the Intercontinental Hotel during talks over Iran's nuclear programme in Geneva on November 23, 2013
British Foreign Secretary William Hague (2nd R) arrives at the Intercontinental Hotel during talks over Iran's nuclear programme in Geneva on November 23, 2013

"There has been progress of 98 percent in the negotiations, but maybe the remaining two percent are way more important than all the other issues," Araqchi said, the ISNA news agency reported.

The talks, the third such gathering in five weeks, are aimed at an elusive deal that would curb or freeze Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for limited relief from sanctions that are hurting its economy.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful, but has failed to allay the international community's suspicions it is aimed at acquiring atomic weapons.

The arrival of Kerry and other P5+1 foreign ministers late Friday and on Saturday had raised hopes, after three long days of intense negotiations among lower-level officials, that a breakthrough was in sight.

However the talks dragged on throughout Saturday for an unscheduled fourth day, and even when they arrived some of the foreign ministers sought to downplay expectations.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on his arrival that the talks "remain very difficult" and that "we are not here because things are necessarily finished".

Two weeks ago, the ministers had jetted in seeking to sign on the dotted line, only to fail as cracks appeared among the P5+1 nations -- fissures that officials say are now repaired.

In this image released by the US State Department, US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) sits with French Minister Laurent Fabius before a bilateral meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on November 23, 2013
In this image released by the US State Department, US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) sits with French Minister Laurent Fabius before a bilateral meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on November 23, 2013

A second fruitless effort in Geneva in as many weeks would not only be diplomatically embarrassing.

If there is no deal, or not even an agreement to meet again soon and keep the diplomatic momentum going, the standoff could enter a new, potentially dangerous phase.

Since being elected in June, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has raised big hopes that, after a decade of rising tensions over Tehran's nuclear programme, a solution might be within reach.

But if his diplomatic push fails to bear fruit, Tehran could resume its expansion of nuclear activities, leading to ever more painful sanctions -- and possible military action by Israeli or the United States.

Devil in the detail

Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful, but has failed to allay the international community's suspicions it is aimed at acquiring atomic weapons.

In this image released by the US State Department, US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before a bilateral meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on November 23, 2013
In this image released by the US State Department, US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before a bilateral meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on November 23, 2013

The six powers want Iran to stop enriching uranium to a fissile purity of 20 percent, close to weapons-grade, but while allowing it to continue enrichment to lower levels.

That would also be a step back from successive UN Security Council resolutions that have called for Iran to halt all enrichment.

The powers also want Tehran to stop construction on a new reactor at Arak and to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency more intrusive inspection rights.

In return they are offering Iran minor and "reversible" relief from painful sanctions, including unlocking several billion dollars in oil revenues and easing some trade restrictions.

This "first phase" interim deal is meant to build trust and ease tensions while negotiators push on for a final accord to end once and for all fears that Tehran will acquire an atomic bomb.

A hard sell

Getting an agreement palatable to hardliners in the United States and in the Islamic republic -- as well as in Israel, which is not party to the talks -- is tough.

Israel's Haaretz daily reported that over the last three days, Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz spoke by phone with two of the P5+1's foreign ministers to press Israel's concerns.

In Washington there is a push by lawmakers to ignore President Barack Obama's pleas and pass yet more sanctions on Iran if there is no deal -- or one seen as too soft.

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