Iran’s foreign minister said Wednesday that his country and six world powers were in “50 to 60 percent agreement” on the shape of a nuclear deal to crimp any potential Iranian attempt to build nuclear arms in exchange for an end to crippling economic sanctions .
Speaking for the six, EU foreign policy chief Baroness Catherine Ashton was less upbeat as the talks reached the halfway mark toward their informal July deadline. But she said that after several rounds of exploratory talks the two sides were now ready to bridge remaining gaps standing in the way of agreement.
The talks paused until May 13 amid stern warnings from Iran’s supreme leader, who said Iran would never slow down its nuclear research program.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Islamic Republic’s negotiating team in Vienna should not yield to issues “forced upon them.”
“These negotiations should continue,” he told nuclear scientists in Tehran, the official IRNA news agency reported.
“But all should know that negotiations will not stop or slow down any of Iran’s activities in nuclear research and development.”
Following two days of talks in Vienna, negotiators from Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – plan to start drafting a long-term agreement on settling the decade-old nuclear dispute by a self-imposed deadline of July 20.
Ashton described the talks as “substantive and detailed” as she left.
She said: “a lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences ahead.”
But Ashton suggested that some progress was made, with negotiators now looking to the next round to “bridge the gaps standing in way of a comprehensive agreement.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, his country’s chief negotiator, read the same statement in Farsi. He then told reporters that the two sides were in “50 to 60 percent agreement,” adding he expected the July 20 target for a final deal to be met .
A senior U.S. administration official declined to confirm whether that assessment was accurate, but said that only 100 percent agreement would produce a deal. She requested anonymity in line with State Department briefing rules.
Unlike previous rounds, the May meeting will be open-ended to allow negotiators to meet all week if needed as they step up efforts to seal a deal, she said.
Iran says that its ballistic missile program, banned under sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council over Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment, would not be discussed in the talks. But the U.S. official, when asked if the missile program came up, said that “every single issue you can imagine” had been raised.
“The Iranians clearly have a sense of urgency to get a deal done , as does the P5+1,” a senior diplomat close to the talks said, but “there are still some significant gaps.”
Russia’s chief negotiator suggested that progress had been achieved on how to resolve concerns about Iran’s planned Arak research reactor. Tehran says the facility is designed to produce radio-isotopes for medical treatments; the West suspects it will be geared to yielding plutonium for atomic bombs.
“The possibility of a compromise on this issue has grown,” Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov as saying. “Centimeter by centimeter, drop by drop, we are moving forward. In general there is a positive dynamic.”
Khamenei, who has the last say on Iran’s affairs of state, has repeatedly said that the country’s red lines are that it will never give up enrichment or shut any nuclear complex. Among the global powers’  most pressing concerns are Iran’s centrifuge research and development program, the size of its uranium stockpiles, the future of Arak and the Fordow underground enrichment plant, a secret site uncovered by Western intelligence in 2009.
Iran’s priority to end the sanctions that have drastically reduced its oil income and virtually barred it from the international financial system.
The Vienna talks are building on a preliminary deal that Iran and the powers reached in Geneva last November.
The agreement provided Iran with limited sanctions relief in exchange for a six-month suspension of some nuclear activities, including higher-grade enrichment, which began on Jan. 20.