GENEVA — Two days of marathon negotiations, by far the most direct and extended high-level contact between the United States and Iran in more than three decades, ended early today without agreement over an interim plan on Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
After a lengthy final meeting between top diplomats from six leading nations, including Secretary of State John Kerry and an Iranian negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javed Zarif, the two sides announced their teams would reconvene Nov. 20.
At an early-morning news conference with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Zarif pronounced himself satisfied. “What I was looking for was the political determination, willingness and good faith and readiness in order to end this,” he said. “I think we’re all on the same wavelength, and that’s important. And that gives us the impetus to go forward when we meet again next time… . We’ve done a lot of work. Hopefully we can do a bit more.”
Kerry was scheduled to speak with reporters later.
“A lot of concrete progress has been achieved, but some differences remain,” Ashton said without elaboration at the brief news conference. She declined to characterize which of the six foreign ministers at the table across from Iran — representing the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — had raised objections to a draft text.
But reports from inside the closed meetings and public statements by the foreign ministers throughout the day indicated that France had been most adamant in refusing to agree to the proposal.
“There are still some questions to be addressed,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said as he left the final meeting.
Zarif declined to criticize the French. “Obviously the six countries may have differences of views,” he said, “but we are working together, and hopefully we will be able to reach an agreement when we meet again.”
The draft plan called for Iran to freeze, but not dismantle, its efforts and ability to produce weapons-capable uranium and plutonium in exchange for a limited easing of economic sanctions on the struggling Iranian economy.
The plan was designed as an interim agreement for the next six months, while negotiators finalized a more permanent program.
The announcement concluded a day of musical chairs and closed sessions that went into Saturday night. As officials emerged from one meeting to begin another, they offered differing accounts of the extent of progress being made and whether agreement during the current negotiating round remained possible.
Kerry met with Zarif and Ashton for five hours on Friday and two hours at midday Saturday before a third session that began well after dark.
Earlier in the day, as Zarif met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, he told Iranian media that progress was being made and some issues had been resolved. Later, Zarif told the BBC in an interview that his message to President Barack Obama was that “this window of opportunity won’t be open indefinitely,” BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen tweeted.
The countries across the table from Iran were not entirely in agreement among themselves. Officials said that some of the strongest objections to the draft agreement that is the basis for the current high-level talks came from Fabius, who said the six should avoid falling for a “fool’s game” that was advantageous to Iran. Fabius’ worry about Israel’s security concerns, which he said must be taken “fully into account,” appeared even stronger than that expressed by Obama, who tried to reassure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Friday telephone call after Netanyahu called the draft “a very bad deal.”
“There is an initial draft that we do not accept,” Fabius told French radio, adding, “I have no certainty that we can finish up” before the departure of the foreign ministers who came to Geneva to lend weight to the talks.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague sounded somewhat more optimistic, telling reporters that the participants would continue “to apply all our efforts to this today to try to seize this opportunity.” Hague said officials were “conscious of the fact that some momentum has built up,” although “there is no fixed time for us to reach a conclusion.”
Both Fabius and Hague cited complications arising from the two main issues in the negotiations. Disagreements center on the status of Iran’s Arak heavy-water reactor and the separate production of highly enriched uranium — both processes that can be used to produce a nuclear weapon — and on what to do with the stockpile of uranium that Iran has already enriched to 20 percent.
Iran, which says it has no interest in weapons production and is producing only electricity, wants Western economic sanctions that are strangling its economy to be lifted.
On Kerry’s arrival in Geneva on Friday, he said “there is not an agreement.” He and his colleagues, he said, were here to help “narrow some differences” rather than to finalize a deal. U.S. officials described the parameters of the agreement as a “first step” toward a comprehensive pact restricting Tehran’s ability to seek atomic weapons.