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Diplomats progress with Iran nuclear talks

A US official says the EU-Iranian talks focused on the details of the negotiations.

US Secretary of State John Kerry. Picture: AFP.

GENEVA - Iran and six major powers have made some progress towards an interim deal to curb Tehran's nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief, but both sides said on Thursday they still have significant differences to overcome.

Negotiators appeared to downplay anticipation of an imminent breakthrough in the three-day talks that began on Wednesday after the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany came close to winning concessions from Iran in the last round of negotiations two weeks ago.

Several Western diplomats said there was a good chance that US Secretary of State John Kerry would join foreign ministers from the other five members of the six nation group in Geneva in another attempt to nail down a long elusive deal with Iran.

One diplomat saw a "very high probability" of ministers coming to another meeting, but there were no signs that the ministers were making definite travel plans.

A senior European diplomat told reporters the ministers would only travel to Geneva if there was a deal to sign.

"We have made progress, including core issues," the European diplomat said. "Tomorrow will be important. There are four or five things still on the table" that need to be resolved.

Still, he added that the atmosphere was positive, describing Thursday's meetings as "constructive but not conclusive". He said no one was suggesting the talks should be broken off and indicated they could run into Saturday.

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi echoed the diplomat's remarks: "We still have some different views on some points and until we get closer to final stages, the foreign ministers will not come."

Under discussion is an Iranian suspension of some sensitive nuclear activities, above all medium-level uranium enrichment, in exchange for modest sanctions relief. That would involve releasing some Iranian funds frozen in foreign bank accounts and allowing trade in precious metals. The United States may also agree to relax pressure on other countries not to buy Iranian oil.

The Iranians have made clear they are most interested in resuming oil sales and getting relief from restrictions on Iranian banking and financial transactions that have crippled the oil-dependent economy.

The main disputes appear to include Iran's quest for some recognition of its "right to enrich", the major powers' demand for a shutdown of the Arak heavy-water reactor project and the extent of sanctions rollbacks on the table.

A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is coordinating the talks on behalf of the six powers, spoke on Twitter of "intense, substantial and detailed negotiations on #Iran #nuclear programme, conducted in good atmosphere."

CRITICAL US-IRAN ENCOUNTERS

In a sign of the tensions that exist between the US and Iran, the State Department issued one of its periodic advisories on Thursday warning US citizens to weigh the risks of travel to Iran. It noted that "some elements in Iran remain hostile to the United States" and that "US citizens may be subject to harassment or arrest."

Policymakers from the six major powers have said an interim accord on confidence-building steps could be within reach to defuse a decade-old stand-off and dispel the spectre of a wider Middle East war over the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions.

A senior member of the Iranian delegation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tehran understood that all oil and banking sanctions could not be removed "in one go" but that enrichment was a red line and "we should have a paragraph on it ... "If that element is not there, there will be no deal."

The interim arrangement under consideration calls for a six-month period of sanctions relief for Tehran that would give Iran and the major powers time to craft a broad, permanent accord.

The US has said most of the sanctions will remain in place and any temporary sanctions relief would be cancelled if no long-lasting agreement with Tehran is reached, or if the Iranians violate the terms of the interim deal.