GENEVA - France and Iran traded tough words on Thursday as major powers struggled to finalise an interim deal to curb Tehran's nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief, with Paris urging the West to remain firm and Tehran deploring a loss of trust.
Each side appeared to be tempering anticipation of an imminent breakthrough after the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany came close to winning concessions from Tehran in the last round of negotiations two weeks ago.
Several Western diplomats said there was a good chance US Secretary of State John Kerry would join foreign ministers from the other five members of the six nation group in Geneva in another attempt to nail down a long elusive deal with Iran.
But there was no guarantee an accord designed to start removing the risk of Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability - an intention it denies having - would be struck. "Lots of progress was made last time, but considerable gaps remain, and we have to narrow the gaps," said a senior Western diplomat. "Some issues really need to be clarified. I sensed a real commitment ... from both sides. Will it happen? We will see. But, as always, the devil is in the details."
Under discussions is an Iranian suspension of some sensitive nuclear activities, above all medium-level uranium enrichment, in exchange for modest sanctions relief - releasing some funds frozen in foreign accounts, allowing trade in precious metals, the United States relaxing pressure on other countries not to buy Iranian oil, and other measures.
The Iranians have made clear, diplomats in the talks say, that they are most interested in resuming oil sales and getting respite from restrictions on Iranian banking and financial transactions that have crippled the economy.
"SERIOUS TALKS" BEGIN
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told reporters"serious talks" with the six powers were under way. Earlier on Thursday the Iranians were scheduled to hold a bilateral meeting with the US delegation headed by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.
Despite the presence of six powers, it is ultimately Iran and the United States who have the power to make or break a deal, diplomats say. Relations between the two were ruptured by Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Policymakers from the six governments have said an interim accord on confidence-building steps could be within reach to defuse a decade-old stand-off and dispel the spectre of a wider Middle East war over the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions.
But before negotiations began in earnest on details of the proposal on Thursday, France and Iran cranked up the rhetoric.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who spoke out against a draft deal floated at the Nov. 7-9 negotiating round, was asked by France 2 television if there could be a deal. "I hope so. But this agreement can only be possible based on firmness. For now the Iranians have not been able to accept the position of the six. I hope they will accept it."
France has consistently taken a hard line on Iran's nuclear programme, helping Paris cultivate closer relations with Tehran's opponents in Israel and the Arab Gulf.
In what appeared to be a response targeted at France, Araqchi said: "We have lost our trust ... We can not enter serious talks until the trust is restored. But that doesn't mean that we will stop negotiations."
Asked how trust could be restored, he said: "If they (the six powers) create one front and stick with united words."
The six powers are seeking an interim deal under which Iran would stop producing uranium enriched to a concentration of 20 per cent, a relatively short step away from weapons-grade material, commit to more exhaustive UN nuclear inspections and shutting down its Arak heavy-water reactor project.