GENEVA (AP) — Differences on whether Iran has the right to enrich uranium that could be used to make nuclear weapons appeared to be a key sticking point Friday between two top negotiators trying to agree on terms that would start curbing Tehran's atomic activities in exchange for sanctions relief.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat, have met repeatedly since Wednesday to hammer out language on a nuclear deal acceptable to both Tehran and six world powers trying to limit Iran's nuclear program.
The negotiations were supposed to be held between the six and Tehran, but those talks have been put on hold except for a brief meeting Wednesday. Instead, Zarif and Ashton have met repeatedly seeking to agree on a text that she would take to the six for approval.
The two met again briefly Friday for talks that Iran's official IRNA news agency described as "complicated and tough." It quoted Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in Geneva that Iran's right to uranium enrichment must be part of any deal.
Iran says it is enriching only to make reactor fuel, medical uses and research. But the technology can also produce nuclear warhead material.
Zarif last weekend indicated that Iran is ready to sign a deal that does not expressly state that his country has the right to enrich, raising hopes that a deal could be sealed at the current Geneva round.
On Monday, however, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said his country would never compromise on "red lines." Since then Tehran has hewn back to its original line — that the six powers must recognize this activity as Iran's right under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty despite strong opposition by Israel and within the U.S. Congress.
"Obviously enrichment is one of the topics we are discussing," Majid Takht-Ravanchi, another Iranian deputy foreign minister. Zarif told Iranian media that progress "has been considerable," but suggested differences on the enrichment issue remained.
Sanctions relief was also an issue.
The United States and its allies have signaled they are ready to ease some sanctions in return for a first-step deal that starts to put limits on Iran's nuclear program. But they insist that the most severe penalties — on Tehran's oil exports and banking sector — will remain until the two sides reach a comprehensive agreement to minimize Iran's nuclear arms-making capacity.
Iran says it does not want such weapons and has indicated it's ready to start rolling back its program but wants greater and faster sanctions relief than that being offered.
Several Democrat and Republican senators have voiced displeasure with the parameters of the potential agreement, arguing that the U.S. and its partners are offering too much for something short of a full freeze on uranium enrichment.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday that he would support legislation to expand sanctions against Iran, though he said he also backs the negotiating effort.
Sen. Bob Corker, the Republicans' top member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, proposed a bill mapping out what a final agreement should look like and seeking to restrict President Barack Obama's capacity to offer sanctions relief.
His proposal also says any final agreement must compel Iran to end all uranium enrichment activity.
Associated Press writer George Jahn contributed to this report.