Geneva: Tehran rejected a key Western demand for site inspections Saturday just as US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart launched crunch talks to secure a nuclear deal ahead of a looming deadline.
The Geneva talks between Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in the run-up to the June 30 deadline come amid heightened diplomatic moves to try and end a 12-year standoff and put a nuclear bomb beyond Iran`s reach.
Kerry and Zarif huddled for negotiations in a leading hotel, greeting each other warmly and chatting as they walked together along the corridor to the meeting room.
Asked by a journalist whether they expected to meet the deadline, Zarif smiled and said: "We will try." Kerry did not respond.
But even as talks got underway, senior Iranian nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi told state television it would be "out of the question" for UN inspectors to question Iranian scientists and inspect military site inspections as part of a final nuclear deal with world powers.
After an interim accord struck in Geneva in November 2013, Washington and Tehran are trying to nail the final details of a ground-breaking agreement that would see Iran curtail its nuclear ambitions in return for a lifting of crippling international sanctions.
Sealing a long-elusive deal with the Islamic republic could give US President Barack Obama his biggest foreign policy achievement yet.
After three decades of enmity, it would also pave the way to bringing Iran back into the international fold and create fresh impetus to resolve a host of conflicts in the Middle East.
The Geneva meeting came as the United States and its partners -- Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia -- seek to finalise the complex pact.US officials said the talks could spill over into a second day as the clock ticks down to the deadline.
On April 2, Iran and the "P5+1" -- as the US and its partners are known -- agreed after eight days of tough talks in the Swiss city of Lausanne to the main outlines of a nuclear deal, with Tehran agreeing to rein in and mothball large sections of its nuclear programme.
But differences remain, with both the United States and Iran under immense pressure from hardliners not to make major concessions.
A senior State Department official told reporters Friday that Kerry wanted to meet with Zarif to discuss the "really tough sticking issues."
June is "going to be a pretty intense month both at the expert level and the secretary`s level, but I think we definitely still believe we can do it."
Since the April 2 accord, technical experts have been meeting behind the scenes to overcome the remaining issues. But many of the decisions now need to be made at a political level.
The US official said that the accord would have "multiple annexes" perhaps as many as three or more, which are already being drafted.
And despite rumblings from both Iranian and French officials that the talks may drag on beyond June 30, US officials insisted that was not on the table.
"We`ve been very clear that we are not contemplating an extension at this point. June 30th is a real date," the State Department official said.Several sticking points remain, including the possible military dimensions of the Iranian programme and the demands by the P5+1 group for UN inspections of Iranian military bases.
Iran also is demanding an accelerated lifting of US, EU and UN sanctions, while the P5+1 wants a "snapback" mechanism to be put in place, enabling the measures to be quickly reimposed if Tehran breaks the deal.
"Kerry will stress to Zarif the importance of granting access for inspections," a western diplomat said.
"It`s one of the key legs of the stool. It`s not the only leg, but if it is not included then the stool will fall over."
Yukiya Amano, the head of the UN`s atomic watchdog, told AFP this week that Iran had agreed to implementing the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that allows for snap inspections.
"When we find inconsistency or when we have doubts, we can request access to the undeclared location for example, and this could include military sites," he said.