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Thursday, March 26, 2015

There was no guarantee of success, a deal was possible but not certain

Iran, powers explore nuclear compromises, Israel alarmed Sun, Mar 29 16:39 PM EDT By Louis Charbonneau, John Irish and Parisa Hafezi LAUSANNE, Switzerland (Reuters) - Iran and six world powers tried to break an impasse in nuclear negotiations on Sunday, but officials cautioned that attempts to reach a preliminary deal by a deadline in two days could yet fall apart. The two sides explored compromises in areas including numbers of centrifuges used to enrich uranium that Iran could operate, and its nuclear enrichment work for medical research. But Israel, which feels especially threatened by the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, said details of a possible framework agreement emerging from the talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, were even worse than it feared. Foreign ministers from the six countries will hold ‎the first full meeting with Iran's foreign minister on Monday morning. The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China want at least a 10-year suspension of Iran's most sensitive nuclear work. Tehran, which denies it is trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability, is demanding an end to international sanctions that are crippling its economy. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said there had been "some progress and some setbacks in the last hours". "I can't rule out that there will be further crises in these negotiations," he told reporters in Lausanne. Officials warned that deep disagreements remained on several points but said the two sides had been closing in on a preliminary deal that could be summarized in a brief document which may or may not be released. Several officials told Reuters that Tehran had indicated a willingness to cut the number of centrifuges it uses to fewer than 6,000, thereby slowing its program, and to send most of its enriched uranium stockpiles for storage in Russia. Senior Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi told reporters dispatching stockpiles abroad "was not on Iran's agenda". Western powers were meanwhile considering allowing Iran to conduct limited and closely monitored enrichment-related work for medical purposes at an underground facility, the officials added on condition of anonymity. Iran had originally insisted on keeping in operation all the nearly 10,000 centrifuges it currently uses, but said in November that Washington had indicated it could accept around 6,000. Iranian officials say they have been pushing for 6,500-7,000. All parts of an emerging nuclear deal are interrelated. "Everything could still fall apart" before Tuesday's self-imposed deadline for a framework agreement, a Western official told Reuters. Araqchi said he believed a deal was possible but that serious decisions remained to be taken. One concerns Iran's demand to continue with research into a new generation of advanced centrifuges that can purify uranium faster and in greater quantities for use in nuclear power plants or, if very highly enriched, in weapons. Another question is over the speed of removing United Nations sanctions on Iran. A senior U.S. official said there were other unresolved questions but expected those would fall into place if the big sticking points could be worked out. The U.S. official said negotiators were working towards something that would be called an "understanding" rather than a formal agreement, which would form the basis of a comprehensive deal, including all technical details, to be tied up by June 30. ISRAEL FURIOUS A senior European diplomat said ministers were engaged in a "a political push to convince Iran" before Tuesday's deadline, adding: "All the pieces of a possible accord are there. We have to try and put them in place so that everything adds up." The powers' aim is to ensure that for the next decade Iran is kept at least one year away from being able to produce enough fissile nuclear material for a single weapon. "It has to be a deal which puts the bomb beyond Iran's reach. There can't be any compromise about that," British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said. "If we're going to get this done here ... Iran has got to take a deep breath and take some tough decisions." His remarks contrasted with hostility from Israel, which is believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal but is not a party to the talks. "This deal, as it appears to be emerging, bears out all of our fears, and even more than that," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet in Jerusalem. Referring to advances made by Houthi rebels allied to Tehran in Yemen, he accused the Islamic republic of trying to "conquer the entire Middle East". "The Iran-Lausanne-Yemen axis is very dangerous to humanity, and must be stopped," Netanyahu said. Israel has previously threatened to attack Iran if it is unhappy with an eventual deal. Ahead of the six powers' first full ministerial meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had a light-hearted exchange. Asked by reporters if he was optimistic a deal could be reached, Lavrov said: "I'm not paid to be optimistic." "You're not paid enough to be optimistic," responded Kerry. (Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing and Michael Nienaber in Berlin; Editing by David Stamp and Catherine Evans) -------------------- Fighting, airstrikes throughout Yemen as dialogue remains distant Sun, Mar 29 07:20 AM EDT image 1 of 10 By Mohammed Mukhashaf and Sami Aboudi ADEN (Reuters) - Yemeni fighters loyal to the Saudi-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi clashed with Iranian-allied Houthi fighters on Sunday in downtown Aden, the absent leader's last major foothold in the country. Hadi loyalists in the southern port city reported a gun battle in the central Crater district in which three people were killed, and said they recaptured the airport, which has changed hands several times in the last five days of fighting. The Health Ministry, loyal to the Houthi fighters who control the capital, said Saudi-led air strikes had killed 35 people and wounded 88 overnight. The figures could not be independently confirmed. The Houthi fighters, representing a Shi'ite minority that makes up around a third of Yemen's population, emerged as the most powerful force in the Arab world's poorest country last year when they captured the capital Sanaa. Saudi Arabia has rallied Sunni Muslim Arab countries in an air campaign to support Hadi, who relocated to Aden in February and is now in Riyadh after leaving Yemen in the past week. The fighting has brought civil war to a country that was already sliding into chaos and which had been a battlefield for the secret U.S. drone war against al Qaeda. In the eastern province of Shabwa, tribal sources said armed tribesmen were fighting a major battle with the Houthis and their army allies at a military base, killing around 30 Houthis. This also could not be independently confirmed. Saudi-led coalition warplanes struck military targets at airports in the capital Sanaa and in Hodeida, the main Red Sea port. In the northern city of Saada, a Houthi stronghold near the Saudi border, strikes hit Houthi military bases belonging to the militia and their ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who still controls most army units. Saleh stood down after a 2011 uprising but still wields wide influence in Yemen. He appealed on Saturday to Arab leaders meeting in Egypt to halt their four-day offensive and resume talks on political transition in Yemen, promising that neither he nor his relatives would seek the presidency. In an apparent rebuttal, a Yemeni official said Hadi had sacked Saleh's son as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia's military intervention, is the latest front in its widening contest with Iran for power in the region, a proxy struggle also playing out in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Iran denies accusations from Sunni Gulf rulers that it has armed the Houthis, who follow the Zaidi branch of Shi'ite Islam. Zaidi Shi'ites led a thousand-year kingdom in Yemen until 1962. Former leader Saleh himself is a member of the sect, although he sought to crush the Houthis while in office, only allying himself with them after his downfall. FIGHTING IN ADEN CENTRE Across the country, there were heavy clashes in seven southern and eastern provinces between the Houthis and pro-Saleh army units on the one hand, against Sunni tribesmen, pro-Hadi loyalists and armed southern separatists on the other. Fighters loyal to Hadi said on Sunday they recaptured Aden airport after fighting which lasted all night. Heavy fighting in the area during the last week meant that foreign diplomats had to be evacuated from the city by boat, ferried by Saudi naval vessels to the Red Sea port of Jeddah on Saturday. Witnesses in Aden's northern Dar Saad district reported seeing two tanks destroyed by Hadi loyalists battling army units who are fighting alongside the Houthis. Five members of the Shi'ite militia were killed in the suburbs, loyalists said. In comments addressed to Arab heads of state meeting in Egypt, Saleh appealed to the Saudi-led coalition on Saturday to stop "the aggression and return to the negotiations table", saying Hadi had failed to run the country. "Let's go to dialogue and elections, and I promise you that neither I nor any of my relatives will run for the presidency." But in public at least, Saudi Arabia and Yemeni officials loyal to Hadi appeared to give Saleh short shrift. Saudi Arabia's King Salman told the summit that military operations would continue until their objectives were achieved. Hadi's Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen said: "We are not thinking about dialogue in the present time until the conditions are arranged on the ground." In a rare move, Saudi-owned television channel Al-Arabiya broadcast a detailed account of what it said was a proposal last week to the Saudi leadership by Saleh's son Ahmed to head off military intervention by breaking with the Houthis. It said two days before the Saudi-led campaign began, Ahmed Saleh offered in a meeting with Saudi Defence Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman to organise a coup against the Houthis. In return, the channel said, Saleh requested U.N. sanctions on his father be lifted, immunity be granted to him and his father, and media campaigns against his father be halted. Al-Arabiya said Prince Mohammad rejected the proposal. "There must be a return to legitimacy in the form of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to lead Yemen from the capital Sanaa," it quoted him as saying. (Additional reporting by Noah Browning in Dubai, Mohammed Ghobari in Cairo and Yara Bayoumy in Sharm el-Sheikh; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Peter Graff) Iran's Rouhani intervenes as deadline for nuclear deal approaches Thu, Mar 26 17:52 PM EDT image 1 of 4 By John Irish and Louis Charbonneau LAUSANNE, Switzerland (Reuters) - Iran's president spoke with the leaders of France, Britain, China and Russia on Thursday in an apparent effort to break an impasse to a nuclear deal between Tehran and major world powers. He also raised the Saudi-led military operation against Iranian-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen, as did U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ahead of nuclear negotiations in Switzerland with Tehran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The United States is pushing for a nuclear deal between Iran and major powers before a March 31 deadline, and officials close to the talks said some kind of preliminary agreement was possible. However, a senior British diplomat acknowledged: "There are still important issues where no agreement has so far been possible. "Our task, therefore, for the next few days is to see if we can bridge the gaps and arrive at a political framework which could then be turned into an agreement," the diplomat told reporters on the sidelines of negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland. The six powers, which include Germany and the United States, hope to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement by June 30. Western powers fear Iran wants to build nuclear bombs, though Tehran says its atomic research is for peaceful purposes. The powers hope to persuade Iran to scale back its nuclear activity in return for the removal of economic sanctions. Israel is believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal and has in the past threatened Iran with military attack. The spokeswoman for U.S. President Barack Obama's National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, confirmed that "a letter from President Rouhani to President Obama was passed to the U.S. negotiating team in Lausanne." She offered no details. In a rare direct exchange between Paris and Tehran, French President Francois Hollande said Iran had a right to civilian nuclear power but insisted on a "lasting, robust and verifiable Iranian nuclear program that guarantees Iran will not get an atomic weapon", a statement from the French presidency said. Last week officials close to the negotiations said France was demanding more stringent conditions than its Western allies for any future agreement. Rouhani reiterated Tehran's principal demand - that the most crippling sanctions be lifted immediately. "All unjust sanctions against the Iranian nation should be lifted," he said on Twitter. "Lifting all sanctions is the main issue that can help us reach the final solution." Western powers insist that sanctions relief must come gradually, though European and U.S. measures against Iranian energy and financial sectors and some U.N. sanctions could be suspended quickly, officials close to the talks said. British Prime Minister David Cameron's spokeswoman told reporters after the call that the two sides agreed it was possible to conclude a framework nuclear deal by end-March. Rouhani also spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin said. On his Twitter feed, Rouhani said he raised military operations in Yemen launched by Iran's regional rival Saudi Arabia with all four leaders. KERRY MEETS ZARIF Kerry and Zarif met twice on Thursday in Lausanne and Kerry raised the Yemen crisis, a State Department spokesman said, though a senior U.S. official told Reuters the issue did not have any impact on the nuclear negotiations. Washington and Tehran take opposing stands on Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen against Shi'ite Houthi rebels allied to Iran who are fighting to oust Yemen's president. Earlier, Iranian media quoted Zarif as condemning the Saudi-led military operation and demanding that it stop. Kerry spoke to the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members and welcomed their action against the Houthis, a senior U.S. official said. Iran and the six powers are seeking a political framework accord by the end of this month that would lay the foundations for a full nuclear deal by June 30. Under a final settlement, Tehran would halt sensitive nuclear work for at least a decade and in exchange, international sanctions would be lifted. Speaking to reporters traveling with Kerry from Washington on Wednesday, a senior State Department official said the six powers would not rush to complete a framework agreement just because there was a March 31 deadline. But the official said: "We very much believe we can get this done by the 31st ... We see a path to do that." The official added, however, that there was no guarantee of success. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, also said a deal was possible but not certain. "It is difficult to forecast whether we can reach a result at this round of talks but we are moving toward reaching a mutual understanding in all technical issues," he told Iranian state television. Israel, Saudi Arabia, France and the U.S. Congress have all raised concerns that the Obama administration might be willing to conclude a deal that would allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability in the future. (Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Jason Bush in Moscow and Kylie Maclellan in London; editing by Andrew Roche/Ruth Pitchford)

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