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Iran and six world powers will try to make headway toward resolving their nuclear dispute in talks starting in Vienna on Tuesday, with Western officials hoping the uphill challenge will not be made even more difficult by the Ukraine crisis.
So far, diplomats say, there is little sign that the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War will undermine the quest for a deal to end the long standoff over Iran's atomic activity and avert the threat of a Middle East war.
But unity among the powers on Iran may be tested in the meeting of their chief negotiators on the issue in the Austrian capital Vienna, with the four Western states and Russia at loggerheads over the future of Ukraine.
One Western envoy said there had been no apparent spillover from the Ukraine situation on expert level talks between Iran and the powers - the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia - held two weeks ago.
"We hope that will continue to be the case," the diplomat said. That was echoed by a senior U.S. official, who said on Friday: "We all hope that the incredibly difficult situation in Ukraine will not create issues for this (Iran) negotiation."
Since then, the United States and European Union have imposed sanctions including asset freezes and travel bans on some senior Russian and Ukrainian officials after Crimea applied to join Russia on Monday following a secession referendum.
Russia is expected to be represented at the talks - which are likely to end late on Wednesday - by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will lead the negotiations on behalf of the powers.
Senior-level talks on the Iran nuclear issue resume in Vienna this week amid a generally upbeat mood. The parties are rolling up their sleeves, staffing their teams and getting to grips with key issues.
Long gone are the trying talks of the past: the frustrating spring 2012 meetings in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow during which Iran’s chief negotiator, the dreary Saeed Jalili, began every session with a sanctimonious sermon. President Hassan Rouhani’s team gets right to the point. The negotiating parties still do not have mutual trust, said an insider at a recent IISS workshop, but they have mutual respect.
The issue is no longer whether Iran should be allowed to enrich uranium; it is how much, based on Iran’s practical need for enriched uranium. Questions concerning quantity are inherently negotiable.
Similarly, on the issue of the Arak research reactor, Iran has already agreed, in principle, that the design could be adjusted to reduce the amount of weapons-grade plutonium that could be produced. Lowering the power of what is now designed to be a 40 megawatts (thermal) reactor won’t be enough to satisfy policymakers in key Western capitals. They want the reactor converted to use light water (which is to say, regular water) as a moderator and coolant, though they may be willing to allow heavy water to be used as a reflector. Making use of Iran’s heavy water could be a face-saving compromise. Again, such details are negotiable.
The greatest convergence between the parties is over verification. Since the days of his election campaign, Rouhani has been ready to accept greater transparency. The increased tempo and scope of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections spelled out in the 24 November Joint Plan of Action is one reason I called it a surprisingly good deal.
The comprehensive deal that is supposed to be negotiated by 20 July will require yet more transparency. If the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ever decides to reverse his fatwas against nuclear weapons and to break out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the production of highly enriched uranium would more likely take place at a clandestine facility rather than at a declared site that is visited near-daily by inspectors. This is why the IAEA needs to be able to visit undeclared sites that it has reasonable grounds to suspect.
"I want to begin by thanking Austria and foreign minister Kurz and the UN and their teamsfor their hospitality.We have had three very productive days during which we have identified all of the issues weneed to address in reaching a comprehensive and final agreement.There is a lot to do. It won't be easy but we have made a good start.In addition to our political discussions, we have started the technical work. And we have set atimetable of meetings initially over the next four months with a framework to continue ourdeliberations.Technical experts will meet in early March, and we will reconvene for the next E3 plus 3political directors meeting led by Minister Zarif and myself, here in Vienna on 17th March."
Six world powers and Iran strived at a second day of talks in Vienna on Wednesday to map out a broad agenda for reaching a ambitious final settlement to the decade-old standoff over Tehran's nuclear program.
The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany want a long-term agreement on the permissible scope of Iran's nuclear activities to lay to rest concerns that they could be put to developing atomic bombs. Tehran's priority is a complete removal of damaging economic sanctions against it.
The negotiations will probably extend at least over several months, and could help defuse years of hostility between energy-exporting Iran and the West, ease the danger of a new war in the Middle East, transform the regional power balance and open up major business opportunities for Western firms.
"The talks are going surprisingly well. There haven't been any real problems so far," a senior Western diplomat said, dismissing rumors from the Iranian side that the discussions had run into snags already. The talks were expected to run at least into Friday morning, Western diplomats said.
The opening session on Tuesday was "productive" and "substantive", they said. "The focus was on the parameters and the process of negotiations, the timetable of what is going to be a medium- to long-term process," one European diplomat said.
"We don't expect instant results."