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France and Iran traded tough words on Thursday as major powers struggled to finalize an interim deal to curb Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, with Paris urging the West to hold firm and Tehran deploring a loss of trust.
Several Western diplomats said there was a good chance U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would join foreign ministers from the other five members of the six nation group in Geneva in another attempt to nail down a long elusive deal with Iran. One diplomat saw a "very high probability" of ministers coming.
"Lots of progress was made last time, but considerable gaps remain, and we have to narrow the gaps," said a senior Western diplomat. "Some issues really need to be clarified. I sensed a real commitment ... from both sides. Will it happen? We will see. But, as always, the devil is in the details."
The main disputes appear to include Iran's quest for some recognition of its "right to enrich", the powers' demand for a shutdown of the Arak heavy-water reactor project, and the extent of sanctions rollbacks on the table.
After a turbulent 10-day recess, Iranian and American negotiators — along with representatives from the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and from Germany — resumed their negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva on Wednesday. The delegations from both the U.S. and Iran are led by seasoned, thoughtful diplomats. The greatest obstacle they face is not each other's intransigence but radicals at home.
There is one step that would greatly advance the cause of peace between the two countries: a frank and heartfelt apology for past wrongs. But domestic political realities inside both countries — fear that extremists will denounce any apology as a sign of weakness or self-flagellation — prevent any president of either country from uttering those often-painful words, "I'm sorry."
Yet each side in this poisoned relationship has good reason to seek pardon from the other. Since neither can be realistically expected to issue an apology of its own, they might consider a joint statement in which they recognize the harm they have done to each other and agree, if not to forgive each other, at least to put the past behind them as they move toward a more promising future.
Wendy Sherman, the chief American nuclear negotiator held a brief meeting Wednesday night with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, but a senior State Department official said that Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat, was the only leader to hold direct and formal talks with the Iranians Thursday at the high-end Intercontinental Hotel here.
The State Department official said leaders from the so-called P5+1 -- the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China -- held bilateral talks throughout the day and stressed that Ashton was negotiating on behalf of the entire group. Despite the darkening atmosphere, it's too soon to conclude that the talks are unraveling. The current talks are designed to freeze -- or at least slow -- Iran's nuclear program for roughly six months while the two sides work towards a comprehensive agreement. The U.S. and its allies would give Tehran access to roughly $7 billion in frozen assets as part of any interim deal. Privately, two Western officials said Thursday's talks had been fairly productive and that there was still a decent chance of a deal. The officials said Iran might have been posturing to show their domestic audience back home that they were taking a hardline with the P5+1 rather than simply agreeing to every Western demand.
Still, the lack of any direct contact between American and Iranian negotiations on the second day of what is supposed to be a three-day conference was striking. American officials say the talks can be extended through the weekend if a deal was close at hand, but the talks could also come to an abrupt halt Friday if the remaining differences between the two sides can't be bridged.
According to an unclassified assessment shared by a senior Israeli officer, military intelligence is focused on the implications of a potential compromise between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany).
A deal would boost President Hassan Rouhani, whose surprise victory in June appeared to herald a political shift in Iran – although he is up against hardliners who oppose a deal.
In the background briefing with foreign journalists, which covered a wide range of Middle East hotspots, the intelligence officer said Iran was one of several countries that could buck the general turmoil across the region.
"We see a bit of a possibility, although it’s quite problematic, of more … stability," said the officer, who spoke on the basis of anonymity. But that is dependent on the success of negotiations "over the nuclear project, but more than that, over the relief of the sanctions on the Iranian economy," he said.