US warns ‘significant differences’ remain in Iran nuclear talks

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US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned of significant differences between Iran and six world powers trying to reach a nuclear agreement, as he and three European foreign ministers added their weight to talks in Geneva.

Officials with delegations at the negotiating table had expressed optimism about progress in Thursday’s full day of talks.

But comments from Mr Kerry and his counterparts from Britain, France and Germany after they arrived in Geneva clearly indicated that some obstacles remain in the way of any first-step agreement offering sanctions reduction for nuclear concessions.

Mr Kerry arrived from Tel Aviv after talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu where he tried to defuse Israeli concerns about the Geneva talks. Israel is against any deal that even slightly lifts sanctions unless Iran is totally stripped of technology that can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Mr Netanyahu said ahead of meeting Mr Kerry that he “utterly rejects” the “bad deal” in the making. But in Geneva, Mr Kerry suggested it was too early to speak of any deal. He told reporters that “important gaps ... still remain.”

He offered no details. But in earlier comments to Israeli television, he suggested Washington was looking for an Iranian commitment to stop any expansion of nuclear activities.

‘We are asking them to step up and provide a complete freeze over where they are today,” Mr Kerry said.

Six powers – the negotiators also include Russia and China – are considering a gradual rollback of sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. In exchange they demand initial curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme, including a cap on enrichment.

As a first step, the six have discussed ending a freeze on up to $50bn (£31bn) in overseas accounts and lifting restrictions on petrochemicals, gold and other precious metals. But their proposal would maintain core sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and financial sector, to force Iran to accept a comprehensive and permanent nuclear deal.

Tehran could be pressing for more significant relief from the sanctions as part of any first-step deal. The decision by Mr Kerry and his European counterparts to fly to Geneva comes after signs that the global powers and Iran were close to a first-stage deal.

But Russian officials said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did not plan to attend. There was no word from Beijing on any plans by the Chinese foreign minister to join his colleagues.

The talks are primarily focused on the size and output of Iran’s enrichment programme, which can create both reactor fuel and weapons-grade material suitable for a nuclear bomb.