Iranian officials are meeting with representatives from six world powers in Muscat, Oman, today in an effort to find a last-minute consensus on its disputed nuclear program ahead of a November 24 deadline.
Along with Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, UK, Russia, China, and France — plus Germany (known collectively as the G5+1) will take part in talks chaired by former EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, hoping to find a solution for a years-long disagreement.
The discussions are focused on Iran's uranium enrichment program, which Tehran says is needed to generate electricity and reduce reliance on fossil fuels, but that the G5+1 is concerned could be an attempt to develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons.
In exchange for quantifiable limits and checks on its enrichment program, Iran is seeking a lightening of UN, US, and EU sanctions that have crippled its energy and financial sectors, as well as its broader economy.
The latest round of talks comes after two days of discussions between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Oman that the US State Department said had been "tough, direct, and serious," but that Iranian officials said made "little progress." US President Barack Obama said on Sunday that there was still a "big gap" between the two sides and warned that an agreement might not be met by the current deadline.
The negotiation process has taken place over months of diplomatic brinksmanship and the impending deadline is itself an extension of previous discussions, which failed to reach an agreement by a July target.
Even getting both sides round a table has not been easy, however, and that it has been possible at all is partly down to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. A self-styled moderate, Rouhani's election heralded a thawing in American-Iranian relations, which helped make talks possible.
There have also been other signs of closer relations between the two countries, which have been sworn enemies for years.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Obama sent a letter to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei mentioning that the countries have a mutual interest in battling Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, but that cooperation relied on a successful conclusion to the nuclear talks.
Obama has refused to confirm or deny the letter but Ali Khoram, adviser to Foreign Minister Zarif, told international Arabic paper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that it had indeed been received and had a favorable impact on Iranian leadership and its traditional perception of the US as the "Great Satan." "Iran and the US have come to terms that despite more than three decades of mistrust, it is now in their national interest to constructively negotiate and reach an agreement," Khoram said.
Tehran and Washington also held secret talks on the subject of diplomatic relations and even raised the possibility of opening an American trade office in Tehran, according to a report from the Times of London on Monday. The US has denied that the discussions took place. However, if true, this would be the first such diplomatic mission since the 1979 hostage crisis when the American embassy was overrun during the Islamic Revolution.
Nevertheless, with less than two weeks until the deadline, observers remain pessimistic about the chances of a successful conclusion to the talks. Their collapse, however, would likely result in more sanctions and an unrestrained enrichment programmed by Iran — something both sides will be keen to avoid.
Also today, representatives from Iran's state atomic agency signed a memorandum with their Russian counterparts. This will see Moscow construct two new nuclear power facilities in Iran with the possibility of six more to come. There is already one Russian-built power plant in the country just southeast of Bushehr on the coast of the Persian Gulf.
It also emerged that an official with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had been repeatedly barred from entering Iran, according to diplomatic sources cited by Reuters. The individual, who was not identified but reported to be a US bomb expert, was apparently refused a visa on five separate occasions.
Others from IAEA had been granted admission, but repeatedly barring a weapons specialist could raise further suspicions in the West as to Iran's nuclear plans. An IAEA spokeswoman contacted by VICE News that she could neither confirm or deny the reports.
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