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Iran, U.S. say progress made in nuke talks

LAUSANNE, Switzerland – With 10 days to a nuclear deal deadline, top U.S. and Iranian officials spoke Saturday of substantial headway, and Iran’s president proclaimed that agreement was within reach. But America’s top diplomat said it was up to Tehran to make the decisions needed to get there.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani said “achieving a deal is possible” by a March 31 target date for a preliminary accord that is meant to lead to a final deal by the end of June that would crimp Tehran’s nuclear programs in exchange for sanctions relief.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was more circumspect after six days of negotiations in the Swiss city of Lausanne. The talks, made “substantial progress,” he said, but “important gaps remain.

“We have an opportunity to get this right,” Kerry said, as he urged Iran to make “fundamental decisions” that prove to the world it has no interest in atomic weapons.

But Iran’s supreme leader warned against expectations that even a done deal would mend the more-than-three-decade freeze between the two nations in place since the Iranian revolution and siege of the American Embassy, proclaiming that Washington and Tehran remained on opposite sides in most issues.

“Negotiations with America are solely on the nuclear issue and nothing else,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a crowd in northeastern Iran on the first day of the Persian new year. “We do not talk with U.S. over regional issues. In the regional issues, America’s goals are completely opposed to our goals.”

In a reflection of the delicate state of negotiations, other officials differed on how close the sides were to a deal.

Top Russian negotiator Sergey Ryabkov and Iran’s atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi said in recent days that technical work was nearly done. But French officials insisted the sides were far from any agreement.

Kerry departed later Saturday to meet with European allies in London, in part to ensure unity, before returning to Washington. Kerry said the U.S. and its five negotiating partners – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – are “united in our goal, our approach, our resolve and our determination.”

But France, which raised last-minute objections to an interim agreement reached with Iran in 2013, could threaten a deal again.

“France wants an agreement, but a robust agreement,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French radio. “That is to say, an accord that really guarantees that Iran can obviously have access to the civil nuclear (program). But to the atomic bomb? No.”

On Twitter on Friday, France’s ambassador to the U.S. called talk about needing a deal by March 31 a “bad tactic” that is “counterproductive and dangerous.” Gerard Araud called it an “artificial deadline” and said negotiators should focus instead on the next phase – reaching a complete agreement by the end of June.

In London on Saturday, Kerry and the European ministers said in a joint statement that any “solution must be comprehensive, durable and verifiable.”

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