UNITED NATIONS — With little more than two months to deadline, Iran and six world powers on Friday launched a fresh effort at narrowing stubborn differences on what nuclear concessions Tehran must agree to in exchange for full sanctions relief.
The talks once again bring Iran to the negotiating table with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. But this time they are taking place on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. That means U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts will likely join in, adding their diplomatic muscle to the meeting.
With the clock ticking down, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the talks had entered a "crucial phase," and suggested Iran would be to blame if the sides failed to seal a deal.
"There is no more room for Iran to play for time," he told reporters, urging Tehran to "move on the core issues."
"Core issues" is used by the West to allude to Iran's uranium enrichment program. Ahead of the talks, chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman acknowledged that the sides "remain far apart" on the size and scope of Iran's uranium enrichment capacity. Depending on its level, enriched uranium can be used as reactor fuel or the fissile core of a nuclear warhead.
Iran's demands that it be allowed to keep its program at its present size and output are not acceptable and will not give Iran what it wants — an end to nuclear-related sanctions choking its economy, she told reporters.
"We must be confident that any effort by Tehran to break out of its obligations will be so visible and time-consuming that the attempt would have no chance of success," she said of Washington's push for deep, long-lasting cuts to prevent any quick move to a nuclear weapon-making mode.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif questioned sanctions, however, as effective in pressuring his country on its nuclear program, nothing it has greatly expanded over the past decades.
"The United States is obsessed with sanctions," he said.
Other issues separating the sides are what to do with an underground enrichment plant near the village of Fordo and with a reactor under construction near the city of Arak.
The U.S wants the Fordo facility converted to non-enrichment use because it's heavily fortified against underground attack. And it wants the reactor converted to reduce to a minimum its production of plutonium, an alternate pathway to nuclear arms.
The deadline was extended to Nov. 24 after the sides failed to reach agreement by the end of July.