Iran's president on Friday urged faster progress at nuclear talks between his country and six world powers, joining other top international officials who say the current round has failed to make substantial headway toward sealing a deal by the Nov. 24 deadline.
Without mentioning the US by name, Hassan Rouhani suggested agreement could end the more than three-decade deep-freeze in relations between Washington and Tehran and mark "the beginning of a path toward collaboration and cooperation."
"There have been steps forward, but they haven't been significant," Rouhani said, arguing that his country had shown the necessary flexibility and that it now was up to the U.S. and five other nations to advance the talks.
"Time is short," he told reporters.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov struck a more optimistic note on the talks, saying separately that both sides were interested in resolving "the remaining small but extremely important issues." But eight days into the current session, he seemed alone in that relatively upbeat assessment.
The officials spoke shortly before the latest round between Iran and six world powers ended late Friday. The session was held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly's ministerial meeting and foreign ministers attending had been expected to join the talks.
But that never happened. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said a lack of "significant advances" obviated the need, while U.S. officials cited scheduling conflicts. Iranian media quoted Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi as saying the sides had "not yet arrived at a mutual understanding that can serve as the basis of an agreement."
Without judging progress, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said his "fervent hope" was that a deal would be struck. A senior U.S. official said an enormous amount of details still needed to be worked through before the November deadline. She demanded anonymity in line with State Department rules.
The talks remain stuck over uranium enrichment. Iran says it needs a robust enrichment program to make reactor fuel and for other peaceful purposes, but the U.S. and its allies fear the program's other application — making the fissile core of a nuclear weapon.
While eager to reach an agreement in return for an end to crippling nuclear-related sanctions, Iranian officials insist they will never agree to gutting their enrichment capabilities. Insisting that the sanctions must "be melted away," Rouhani nonetheless said Iran will not accept any agreement that requires it to stop enriching uranium.
The U.S. came to the current round demanding that Tehran limit its enrichment output at what roughly 1,500 of its mainstay centrifuge machines would produce. Iran insists the output should remain at the level produced at the approximately 10,000 centrifuges it now operates — and be allowed to expand more than ten-fold over the next decade.
With the clock ticking down on the deadline, diplomats have told The Associated Press that the U.S. is considering a new approach. They said the tentative proposal would allow Tehran to keep nearly half of the centrifuges already spinning but reduce the stock of uranium gas fed into the machines to the point where it would take more than a year of enriching to create enough material for a nuclear warhead.
The diplomats emphasized that the proposal is only one of several being discussed by the six powers — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — and has not yet been formally submitted to the Iranians.
Other ideas also include letting Iran have more than 1,500 machines but removing or destroying much of the infrastructure needed to make them run — connecting circuits, pipes used to feed uranium gas and other auxiliary equipment.
Both would allow the Iranians to claim that they did not compromise on vows that they would never destroy existing enrichment capabilities, while keeping intact American demands that the program be downgraded to a point where it could not be quickly turned to making bombs.
But even if a solution is found, the sides still differ on how long Iran's nuclear program should be constrained, with Tehran seeking less than a decade and the demanding Americans substantially more.
Reflecting Iran's opposition to deep cuts, Rouhani said the main issue was not decreasing enrichment but how long "Iran is willing to limit its capability, and after what period they can expand upon those activities."
The fates of a reactor under construction near the city of Arak and of an underground enrichment facility at Fordo are also up in the air. The U.S. and its Western allies want the reactor converted to reduce to a minimum of its production of plutonium, an alternate pathway to nuclear arms. And they insist that the Fordo plant be shuttered or used for something other than enrichment because it is fortified and thought to be impervious to air attacks.
Associated Press writers Gregory Katz and Matthew Lee contributed.