VIENNA (Reuters) - France’s foreign minister appeared to put pressure on the United States and Iran on Saturday to speed up nuclear talks, saying all issues were now on the table and that the time had come to make a decision.
Western and Iranian diplomats close to the talks said they expected to work well into the night in hopes of a breakthrough, perhaps as early as on Sunday, on a deal to bring sanctions relief for Tehran in exchange for curbs on its atomic program.
Iran and the six powers involved in the talks - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States - have given themselves until Monday to reach a deal, their third extension in two weeks, as the Iranian delegation accused the West of throwing up new stumbling blocks to an accord.
“Now that everything is on the table, the moment has come to decide,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement sent to Reuters after speaking to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.
Among the biggest sticking points this week has been Iran’s insistence that a United Nations Security Council arms embargo and ban on its ballistic missile program dating from 2006 be lifted immediately if an agreement is reached.
Russia, which sells weapons to Iran, has publicly supported Tehran on the issue.
However, a senior Western diplomat said earlier in the week the six powers remained united, despite Moscow’s and Beijing’s well-known dislike of the embargos.
Western powers have long suspected Iran of aiming to build nuclear bombs and using its civilian atomic energy program to cloak its intention - an accusation Iran strongly denies.
Other problematic issues in the talks are access for inspectors to military sites in Iran, answers from Tehran over past activity and the overall speed of sanctions relief.
“Still have difficult issues to resolve,” Kerry tweeted on Saturday after meeting Zarif.
The two men have met nearly every day since Kerry arrived in Vienna more than two weeks ago for what was intended to be the final phase in a negotiation process lasting more than year and a half aimed at securing a long-term deal with Iran.
An agreement would be the biggest step towards rapprochement between Iran and the West since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, although both sides are likely to remain wary of each other even if a deal is concluded.
In separate comments, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani suggested the talks could go either way while Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said Tehran would continue its fight against “global arrogance” - referring to the United States.
According to his website, Khamenei was asked by a student what would happen to the “fight against global arrogance” after the completion of the nuclear talks and the supreme leader replied that fight must go on.
“Fighting global arrogance is the core of our revolution and we cannot put it on hold. Get ready to continue your fight against the global arrogance,” Khamenei was quoted as saying. “The U.S. is the true embodiment of the global arrogance.”
Rouhani, who was elected president in 2013 on a platform of improving Iran’s relations with the world as well as its sickly oil-based economy, was quoted by Iran’s Nasim news agency as suggesting talks could succeed or fail.
“Even if the nuclear talks fail, our diplomacy showed the world that we are logical. We never left the negotiation table and always provided the best answer,” Nasim quoted Rouhani as saying during a meeting with Iranian artists.
“Twenty-two months of negotiation means we have managed to charm the world, and it’s an art,” he was quoted as saying.
Kerry told reporters late on Friday the atmosphere in the talks was constructive.
“A couple of differences have been decided ... It’s safe to say we have made progress,” he said, without giving any details.
Fabius and Hammond returned to Vienna on Saturday and a U.S. official said that Kerry had spoken by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was not in Vienna.
In the last few days the talks have become bogged down, with diplomats speaking of a shouting match between Kerry and Zarif.
The White House said on Friday that the United States and its partners “have never been closer” to agreement with Iran but that the U.S. delegation would not wait indefinitely.
A senior Iranian official speaking on condition of anonymity said on Thursday the United States and other Western powers were shifting their positions and backtracking on an April 2 interim accord that was meant to lay the foundations for a final deal.
Additional Reporting by Parisa Hafezi, Arshad Mohammed and Shadia Nasralla in Vienna and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in Dubai; Writing by Louis Charbonneau, John Irish and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Hugh Lawson