EU powers and Iran have agreed to continue talks over Tehran's controversial nuclear programme amid signs they could strike a deal soon after a last-ditch meeting here Wednesday to avert an escalation in the dispute.
Iran pledged to maintain a suspension of its uranium enrichment programme agreed in Paris last November, Iranian chief negotiator Hassan Rowhani said, indicating that progress was made in the high-level talks.
Hasan Rohani, left, and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, right
"We believe following what was discussed today we could come to an agreement in a reasonably short time," Rowhani told journalists after meeting the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany in Geneva.
Britain's foreign secretary Jack Straw said the three EU powers, known as the EU-3, had told Iranian negotiators they would make new proposals to Tehran in late July or August.
"The European side said that it would take detailed proposals to Iran by the end of July or the beginning of August, as outlined and discussed today and earlier by our officials, in the context of the Paris agreement remaining in force," Straw told journalists.
"Iran for its part reaffirmed its commitment to not seeking nuclear weapons," he added.
Iranian negotiators had warned before the meeting that a deadlock was looming amid plans to reopen a nuclear plant in central Iran, warning that the Geneva talks were a "final chance."
"The Paris agreement remains in place... We kept this show on the road," a European official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The European Union had warned that it could refer Iran to the UN Security Council -- and expose Tehran to direct pressure from Washington -- if the talks failed.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana (photo) joined Straw, French foreign minister Michel Barnier, their German counterpart Joschka Fischer and Rowhani at an Iranian diplomatic residence in a leafy Geneva suburb.
Carrots rather than sticks
The EU has been offering possible trade and other benefits to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear plans.
The EU-3, representing the full 25-member EU, called the talks after Tehran repeatedly signalled it would resume key nuclear activities including an uranium enrichment capability. That would be in breach of an accord to suspend enrichment "temporarily," which was reached in Paris last November.
Enriched uranium can be used both for civil or military purposes, depending on the level of enrichment. Tehran insists that its nuclear programme is only meant to provide an alternative source of energy.
Iranian negotiators were adamant before the talks that they wanted to resume activities at a nuclear plant in Isfahan, central Iran. An Iranian negotiator, Cyrus Nasseri, said a resumption in Isfahan was "the only solution to allow a suspension to continue in other parts." Isfahan is a uranium conversion plant, a precursor stage in enrichment.
But the EU ministers signalled that step would be unacceptable.
Foreign Minister Michel Barnier
"We are working in the spirit of the Paris agreement, which does not allow a resumption of any conversion of enrichment activity," French Foreign minister Michel Barnier (photo) said after the meeting.
The United States, which has adopted a tougher stance, has nonetheless backed the European diplomatic thrust.
Tehran is proposing that some of the more sensitive enrichment work on nuclear fuel from Iran could be conducted in Russia, Iran's foreign minister Kamal Kharazi said.
According to the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Tehran would pledge not to acquire nuclear arms and would authorize the permanent presence of international inspectors. The Iranians also want the EU to help them build nuclear reactors, and to guarantee them supplies of nuclear fuel for future reactors.