Kerry and Zarif clutch at straw of nuclear breakthrough
The United States and Iran began high-level talks in Oman Sunday ahead of a looming deadline for a deal on Tehran's nuclear programme, with both sides under pressure at home.
US Secretary of State John Kerry started a meeting with Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif to try to close substantial gaps before November 24, when an interim agreement is meant to be turned into a comprehensive long-term settlement.
The meeting follows the revelation that US President Barack Obama reportedly wrote to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to push for a deal, arguing the Islamic republic and the West have shared regional interests.
The apparent reference to the fight against Islamic State group militants in Syria and Iraq, however, was played down by Kerry in Beijing on Saturday, with the US diplomat saying "there is no linkage whatsoever" with the nuclear talks.
Despite the approaching deadline, Iran and the P5+1 group -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States plus Germany -- are far apart on what capabilities Iran's nuclear programme should have.
The West has as yet been unconvinced by Iran's denials that it has never sought a nuclear weapon, while Tehran insists its atomic activities are for peaceful, civilian energy purposes only.
A deal, for the West, aims to put a bomb forever beyond Iran's reach.
Kerry and Zarif began their talks at 11:30 am (0730 GMT), with former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also present.
At issue is the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges Iran should be allowed to keep spinning in exchange for sanctions relief and rigorous inspections at its nuclear sites.
Iran wants "industrial grade enrichment" beyond its current capabilities while the world powers want a reduction.
However, domestic politics were hanging heavily over the talks, given the loss in midterm elections of the Senate by Obama's Democrats to the Republican party, members of whom have consistently bridled at the White House's negotiations with Iran.
If talks go sour in the coming weeks it is thought the US Congress may respond with fresh sanctions on Iran.
Obama has the power to veto them, but the prospect of new penalties could disrupt an already protracted process.
Zarif is also under pressure, with members of parliament criticising the talks and threatening to scupper a deal if lawmakers themselves do not have a say in ratifying it.
Although officially supportive, hardliners in Tehran have often been ambivalent about the negotiations, which officially resumed last autumn after earlier secret talks with Washington in Oman set the wheels in motion.
On the plane to Muscat on Saturday, Zarif told reporters that Iran and the P5+1 have concentrated on "solutions rather than differences" since talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September.
"There is still a gap between the two parties on the size of the enrichment programme and the mechanism for lifting sanctions," the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.
"If the other party acts with good political will, we can reach an agreement."
The surprise election last year of President Hassan Rouhani, who had pledged to revive Iran's sanctions-battered economy, was a turning point on the nuclear issue but progress has been elusive since an interim deal came into effect in January.
After Sunday's meeting between Kerry and Zarif, the political directors of the P5+1 powers will hold talks in Muscat on Tuesday. Ashton, who will see out the nuclear negotiations until November 24, will also chair that meeting.
The talks move back to Vienna on November 18 for a final push towards the deadline six days later.
A comprehensive agreement would represent a hard-earned foreign policy win for Obama in a region where the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran has hung for more than a decade.
Iran would stand to benefit economically, both from sanctions relief and from incoming foreign businesses whose operations in the Islamic republic are currently hobbled by banking restrictions imposed on Tehran as punishment for its nuclear activities.