Progress, but no deal yet, as Iran talks conclude

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Geneva__ Talks between Iran and six world powers made progress in narrowing differences but did not yield an agreement, despite raised hopes after US Secretary of State John Kerry and other P5+1 foreign ministers flew in over the past two days, in seeming anticipation of a breakthrough.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at a first-ever joint press conference at the conclusion of talks, put an upbeat spin on the past three days’ proceedings, saying significant progress had been made and announcing they would meet again in Geneva on Nov. 20-21, this time at the political director level.

But France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius preempted their press conference, breaking protocol to announce, ahead of Ashton, that they had not reached an agreement.

Earlier Saturday, Fabius announced that he did not accept the draft nuclear accord, abandoning the usual efforts by the P5+1 to project unity and keep details of their internal discussions and disagreements behind closed doors.

“There is an initial text that we do not accept,” Fabius told France’s Inter radio Saturday morning, according to a translation provided by a French reporter here. “There are several points that we are not satisfied with.. If those questions will no be addressed it will not be possible [to reach agreement]. I want a deal but we have to be careful not to be played for fools.”

France’s concerns were reported to center on wanting Iran to halt work on the Arak heavy water facility during the negotiations, as well as on Iran’s stockpile of 20% uranium.

Kerry, speaking after the talks early Sunday, did not explain why a deal couldn’t be closed here, but said he thought an agreement is within reach.

“We came to Geneva to narrow differences, and I can tell you without any exaggeration we not only narrowed differences and clarified those that remain, but we made significant progress,” Kerry said at a press conference after the talks. “There’s no question in my mind that we are closer now, as we leave Geneva, than we were when we came, and that with good work and good faith over the course of the next weeks, we can in fact secure our goal.”

He said the negotiations had been “conducted with mutual respect, in a very serious and civil way.”

Kerry did not mention his unprecedented over eight hours of meetings with Iran’s Zarif over the past two days. But there were signs of a growing sense of ease and normalcy to US-Iran interactions at the talks that did not exist before he and Zarif met on the sidelines of the UN in New York in September.

Iranian diplomats said the meetings between Zarif, Kerry, and Ashton and their top deputies had been good and productive, and expressed optimism about prospects to finalize a nuclear accord in the upcoming weeks.

“I think it was natural, when we start dealing with the details, that there will be differences in views,” Zarif, speaking in English, said at the press conference with Ashton. “I am not disappointed at all, it was a good meeting.”

Western diplomats did not deny frustration over Fabius’ behavior at the talks, but did not disparage the concerns he raised, but rather that he raised them publicly–thus giving the impression that it was the western powers that were divided over the text, and doing so in a way that diminished prospects for a deal here.

France believes that Iran should halt construction of the Arak heavy water reactor during the first phase of a nuclear agreement, which is envisioned to last for six months, during which a comprehensive deal would, in theory, be hammered out. Some other powers believe that Arak could be part of an end state deal, since it is not due to come on line until late 2014.

A former western diplomat said over the past year, France’s political director Jacques Audibert “has repeatedly assured the U.S. side that, if there is a deal in the offing, the French will not stand in the way, their hard-line posturing in past months notwithstanding,” he said, calling it “very surprising…the French are the holdup at this moment.”

But western diplomats privately did not dispute the basic narrative that was the case, and their disappointment.

Kerry, asked at the press conference if the P5+1 had been blindsided by the French position here, answered indirectly, saying the delegations had arrived with a draft document that had some bracketed text that the parties expected to further negotiate on here.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who arrived Saturday morning from Moscow, emerged from the inconclusive talks, which stretched past midnight, and headed to the hotel bar. Before his arrival, Russian diplomats had complained about a sense of confusion on the p5 side, and being left in the dark about what was going on. But a European official said all the parties were working very hard and making progress, and there had been regular debriefings for all the delegations.

(Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry gives a press conference in Geneva at the conclusion of talks between six world powers and Iran, by Eric Bridiers, U.S. Mission in Geneva.)