GENEVA - World powers aim to reach a preliminary deal to curb Iran's nuclear programme in politically charged talks resuming in Geneva on Wednesday.
Seeking to end a long standoff and head off the risk of a wider Middle East war, the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany came close to winning concessions from Iran on its nuclear work in return for some sanctions relief at negotiations earlier this month.
Top policymakers from the six have since said that an interim accord on confidence-building steps could finally be within reach. But diplomats caution that differences remain and could still prevent an agreement.
Russia is hopeful that a preliminary deal will emerge this week, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. "We hope the efforts that are being made will be crowned with success at the meeting that opens today in Geneva," he told a news conference on Wednesday.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tehran would not step back from its nuclear rights and he had set "red lines" for his negotiators in Geneva. But Tehran wanted friendly ties with all countries, including the United States. "We want to have friendly relations with all nations, even the United States," he told an audience of Basij militiamen. "Death to America," the militiamen chanted in response, repeating one of the main rallying cries for supporters of the Islamic Republic.
The last meeting stumbled over Iran's insistence that its"right" to enrich uranium be recognised, and disagreement over its work on a heavy-water reactor near Arak, which could yield plutonium for atomic bombs once it becomes operational.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has since indicated a way around the first sticking point, saying Tehran has the right to refine uranium but is not insisting others recognise that right.
A UN report last week showed Iran had stopped expanding its enrichment of uranium and had not added major new components at Arak since August, when moderate Hassan Rouhani replaced hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.
Nuclear analyst Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group think-tank said the "body language" showed that the sides were ready for a deal, pointing to Iran slowing its nuclear push and Washington refraining, so far, from imposing more sanctions. "(They) have demonstrated that they are looking to transform stumbling blocks into stepping stones," Vaez said.
Zarif, Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator, said on the eve of the meeting there was "every possibility" of a successful conclusion provided there was good faith and the political will among all involved to resolve problems.
US President Barack Obama sounded a more cautious note on Tuesday, saying it was unclear whether the world powers and Iran will be able to reach an agreement soon.
American lawmakers urged the Obama administration on Tuesday to take a tougher line with Iran.