First round of Iran nuclear talks in Vienna leads to ‘timetable’

Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative, and Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian Foreign Minister

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World powers and Iran agreed a timetable and framework to find a comprehensive solution to the dispute over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme in the first round of talks in Vienna.

Three days of discussions between Iran and the P5+1 – the five members of the UN Security Council and Germany – concluded on Thursday with a loose commitment to address the full range of contested nuclear issues and the beginnings of a diplomatic charm offensive to assuage criticism of the talks’ modest start.

“We have identified all the issues we will need to discuss,” Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, who led negotiations for the P5+1, said in a joint press conference with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian foreign minister.

“We have set a timetable of meetings initially over the next four months with a framework to continue our deliberations,” Ms Ashton added. “There is a lot to do. It won’t be easy but we have made a good start.”

Mr Zarif told Iranian reporters in Vienna that “for the first time the meeting was more positive than expected”.

The talks – which are likely to last for months – are the culmination of the limited accord signed between Tehran and western powers last November, following Iran’s election of a centrist government under president Hassan Rouhani.

The issue of just what will – and what won’t – be up for discussion in future negotiations has been the focus of negotiations over the past three days.

Disputed agenda issues include a ballistic missile programme and so-called “possible military dimensions” to nuclear research.

“Our defence issues are not part of the negotiations,” Mr Zarif said at the conference. “We have made our position clear” to the six powers, he added.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has already warned that inserting questions on the defence system in the nuclear talks showed the US had other intentions – a clear reference to Iran’s suspicion of an unspoken regime-change policy.

US officials have been at pains to stress that future talks will address such issues.

“Everything of concern to us has been discussed, will be discussed and is on the table,” the US State department official said, pointing out that, under the terms of the November interim agreement, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

The dispute underscores the extent to which the supposed agreement over a negotiating “framework” remains an open-ended issue.

Western diplomatic sources admitted privately that nothing has been formalised, or will be announced publicly on the framework. Such a move could to give succour to hardline critics of the P5+1’s dealings with Iran in Washington and the Middle East.

Underscoring that concern, the US State department will begin a flurry of briefings at home and abroad to allay criticism over a lack of clarity on the content of future talks.

Wendy Sherman, US under-secretary for political affairs, will travel to Jerusalem, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Dubai over the next five days to meet with government representatives and the Gulf Co-operation Council, the State department announced. Briefings will also begin with US members of Congress.

The next set of formal negotiations will commence with a meeting between technical experts from the P5+1 and Iran in early March, followed by a meeting between political directors, Ms Ashton and Mr Zarif in Vienna later in the month.

Negotiators initially have until July, according to the November interim deal, to find a final deal.

Under the terms of the interim agreement Iran received $7bn in targeted sanctions-relief in exchange for a freeze on its enrichment of uranium above a 5 per cent threshold and the dilution of its existing stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 per cent.

After July, negotiations for a full deal may be renewed by mutual consent for another six months. The terms of the deal will expire completely if no final, binding agreement is made by that time.

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