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Iran talks still mired in dispute after Kerry-Zarif encounter

Jonathan Tirone, Sangwon Yoon and Kambiz Foroohar

Bloomberg News

VIENNA — Direct talks between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart showed no sign of overcoming the same disagreements that foiled their diplomats for the last 13 days in Vienna.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has been in the Austrian capital since negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear work convened July 2, met with Kerry for two hours Monday, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be named. Kerry arrived Sunday and met with envoys including President Hassan Rouhani’s younger brother, Hossein Fereydoun, who joined talks for the first time.

“We are in the middle of talks about nuclear proliferation and reining in Iran’s program,” Kerry said in Vienna. “It is a really tough negotiation.”

Stakes are high as negotiators face a July 20 deadline to secure a long-term nuclear deal with Iran. Important gaps remain over the Persian Gulf nation’s uranium-enrichment capacity. Absent an accord, Iran has said it may resume some suspended nuclear activities while Congress has threatened to impose harsher sanctions.

“This is perhaps the last chance in a long time to resolve the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program in a peaceful manner,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters on July 13 in Vienna after meeting with Kerry and his counterparts from France and Britain. “There is little time remaining. The ball is in Iran’s court.”

The presence of Fereydoun, who had previously served as a diplomat at Iran’s United Nations mission in New York, may signal a greater desire by Iran to reach a deal. In a photograph of the meeting, posted by European Union spokesman Michael Mann on Twitter, Fereydoun is sitting next to Zarif. He doesn’t share the same family name as Hassan Rouhani, who changed his appellation after he became a cleric.

“He’s the president’s eyes and ears,” Ali Vaez, an Istanbul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said in an emailed reply to questions about Fereydoun.

Iran and world powers are divided over the extent of the country’s enrichment program. The U.S. and its allies seek a cut in Iran’s current capacity and curbs on future production.

Comments last week by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, complicated this round of talks, according to another U.S. official who asked not to be named. Iran’s highest authority said the country would eventually need as many as 190,000 first-generation uranium enrichment centrifuges or 7,000 advanced machines. About 19,000 first-generation units are currently installed, with about 9,000 in operation.

Iran’s conservative Kayhan newspaper Monday warned Zarif not to back down from the 190,000 level. It is “the official red line of the establishment at one of the most essential junctures of the negotiations,” said Hossein Shariatmadari, Kayhan’s editor in chief, who was appointed by Khamenei.

While diplomats in Vienna try to keep focus on the Iran nuclear talks, widening tension in the Middle East also crept into the agenda. British Foreign Secretary William Hague and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called for a cease-fire in fighting between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 100 civilians.

Kerry offered to help facilitate a cease-fire in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be named following diplomatic rules.

“The circumstances have changed radically in the last few years in the Middle East,” William Miller, a former U.S. ambassador who also served five years in Tehran, said today in an interview in Vienna. “Iran is now the most stable country in the Middle East.”

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