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Racing against the clock, nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers appeared tough going on Thursday with both sides warning of major differences as they tried to draft an accord.
The hoped-for agreement would see Iran scale back its nuclear programme, in order to ease fears Iran wants atomic weapons, and avert a conflict in the Middle East.
Iran, which has seen its relations with the West thaw somewhat since the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, wants painful UN and Western sanctions lifted. It denies wanting the bomb.
On a fourth day of talks in Vienna, Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany have started haggling over the wording of a deal, officials said.
But beyond agreeing a title for the accord, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that “fundamental differences” were dividing the two sides.
On Wednesday negotiations “slowly” began to draft the final agreement, “but there are still many differences” over the text, ISNA news agency quoted Zarif as saying from Vienna.
He added that the talks had been “very difficult”.
A Western diplomat said that Iran was refusing to budge on most issues and that drafting language in the text on the “complex issues” had not begun.
“It is worrying that there is no evolution on the part of the Iranians on most subjects,” the diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Differences between the two sides on uranium enrichment, the central issue not only in this fifth round of talks but for the past decade, remain “major,” the envoy said.
Enrichment is front and centre of Western concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions, as the process can produce both fuel for nuclear power plants and, when highly purified, the core of an atomic bomb.
The West wants Iran to slash the number of centrifuges, the machines that enrich uranium, from the current 20 000, but Tehran wants to install many more in order, it says, to fuel a future fleet of nuclear plants.
Other thorny issues include the duration of the mooted accord, the pace of any sanctions relief and a reactor being built at Arak that might give Iran plutonium, the alternative to highly-enriched uranium for a bomb.
“Bearing in mind the limited time that is left and the differences remaining, the progress is slow” in writing the draft, a senior Iranian diplomat at the talks told ISNA.
Iran's top negotiator Abbas Araqchi told IRNA on Wednesday that choosing to push back the July 20 deadline - when an interim deal struck in November expires - “won't be a catastrophe”.
But US President Barack Obama is not seen as keen, seeking ahead of November midterm US elections to silence accusations that the talks are merely giving Iran time to inch ever closer to the bomb.
Complicating the process is the shared interest of Washington and Shi'a Iran in seeing a lightning onslaught by Sunni rebels in Iraq stopped in its tracks.
On Monday US and Iranian officials briefly discussed the crisis on the sidelines in Vienna, although Washington said this would not be repeated.
On Wednesday a senior aide to Rouhani, his chief of staff Mohammad Nahavandian, appeared to say that any US-Iranian cooperation in Iraq depended on progress in the nuclear talks.
“If that comes to a final resolution, then there might be opportunities for other issues to be discussed,” Nahavandian said in Norway.
In Israel, assumed to have nuclear weapons itself and which has not ruled out bombing Iran, a minister on Thursday expressed fears that the crisis may prompt Washington to make concessions in Vienna.
But US State Department Jen Psaki said on Wednesday that any discussion of Iraq would be “entirely separate” from the nuclear negotiations.
“Any effort to connect the two is a nonstarter for the United States,” Psaki told reporters. - Sapa-AFP