Tortuous Iran nuclear talks in fourth day

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart seek to agree the outlines of a potentially historic deal by March 31

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U.S. and Iranian negotiators entered Thursday into a fourth day of tough talks towards a landmark nuclear deal, with Tehran’s foreign minister talking down prospects for a breakthrough this week.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart have been haggling in Switzerland since Monday as they seek to agree the outlines of this potentially historic agreement by March 31.

They hope an accord, to be finalized by July, would convince the world after a standoff now in its 13th year that Iran won’t build nuclear weapons under the guise of its civilian program.

The agreement would involve Iran reducing its nuclear activities and ultra-tight inspections in exchange for relief from painful sanctions strangling its oil exports and economy.

Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif said Wednesday that foreign ministers from the other five powers involved -- Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- were unlikely to join him and Kerry in Lausanne this week.

“When the solutions are found and we approach a deal, then all the foreign ministers of the negotiating parties should come,” he said.

As a result the negotiations will likely have to continue into next week or resume then after a break. Political directors from all countries involved joined the talks in the week.

On Tuesday the White House said the chances of such a deal are 50/50 “at best” with “some of the most difficult issues... yet to be resolved.”

The mooted deal is highly complex, and negotiators have already missed two deadlines last July and November to clinch a deal despite numerous rounds of talks around the world.

Kerry cannot afford a new extension, however, experts say, with President Barack Obama's Republican opponents teeing up new sanctions legislation that would likely kill the entire process.

The Republicans and Israel’s freshly re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- whose country is widely assumed to have nukes itself -- fear the agreement will not stop Iran getting the bomb.

“The sooner Obama can bring back an agreement that meets U.S. policy goals, the better,” Arms Control Association analyst Kelsey Davenport told AFP.

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