Iran, six powers demand mutual concessions in tense nuclear talks

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Major powers and Iran were pushing each other for concessions on Friday ahead of an end-March deadline for a preliminary nuclear deal, with Tehran demanding an immediate end to sanctions and freedom to continue sensitive atomic research, officials said.

Tehran and six major powers — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — are meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, to hammer out a political framework accord by the end of this month that would lay the foundations for a full deal by June 30.

Under a final settlement, Tehran would halt sensitive nuclear work for at least a decade and in exchange, international financial and oil sanctions on Iran would be lifted. This would aim to end Iran’s 12-year nuclear standoff with the West and reduce the risk of war in the Middle East.

While all sides agree they are moving closer to a deal, there are major disagreements.

Tehran insists on the freedom to continue research on advanced centrifuges, machines that purify uranium for use in nuclear power plants or, if very highly enriched, in weapons, at the underground Fordow site, and immediate lifting of all U.N. sanctions and the most severe U.S. and European Union sanctions.

“There has been massive progress on all the issues,” a senior Iranian official told Reuters. “There are still disputes over two issues — R&D (research and development) and U.N. sanctions.”

A Western official close to the talks confirmed that centrifuge research and enrichment in general remained the most difficult unresolved issue.

The foreign minister of France, which negotiators say has demanded the most stringent limits on future Iranian nuclear activity if it is to support a deal, made clear there was more work to do while playing down the importance of the deadline.

“The important thing is the content not the deadline,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters at the United Nations in New York. “There has been some progress, but there are things which are not yet solved.”

Fabius is due to arrive in Lausanne on Saturday. His British and Russian counterparts have also confirmed that they will join the talks over the weekend. The Republican-led U.S. Congress has threatened to impose new U.S. sanctions on Iran if there is no March deal, against the advice of President Barack Obama, who has threatened to veto any such moves.