GENEVA — Iran's refusal to suspend work on a plutonium-producing reactor and downgrade its stockpile of higher-enriched uranium was standing in the way of an interim agreement to curb Tehran's nuclear program in return for easing of sanctions, France's foreign minister said Saturday.
A Western diplomat in Geneva for the talks told The Associated Press that the French were holding out for conditions on the Iranians tougher than those agreed to by the U.S. and France's other negotiating partners, raising doubts a final deal could be struck Saturday.
The French position was confirmed by another Western diplomat. Both gave no specifics and demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the diplomatic maneuvering.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius' remarks to France-Inter radio were the first to provide some specifics on the obstacles at the Geneva talks, now in their third day. He spoke by telephone from Geneva, where he, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and counterparts from Britain, and Germany negotiating with Iran consulted on how to resolve the obstacles at the talks.
Fabius mentioned differences over Iran's Arak reactor southeast of Tehran, which could produce enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons a year once it goes online. He also said there was disagreement over efforts to limit Iran's uranium enrichment to levels that would require substantial further enriching before they could be used as the fissile core of a nuclear weapon.
"There are several points that ... we're not satisfied with compared to the initial text," Fabius said, adding that France did not want to be part of a "con game." He did not specify, but the totality of his comments suggested France thought a final draft of any first-step deal was too favorable to Iran.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal pointed to "rather large cohesion" among the negotiators, and said France wanted "the international community to see a serious change in the climate" of talks with Iran.
"There have been years of talks that have led to nothing," Nadal said, alluding to the need for tough terms on Iran.
Iran, which denies any interest in nuclear weapons, currently runs more than 10,000 centrifuges that have created tons of fuel-grade material that can be further enriched to arm nuclear warheads. It also has nearly 440 pounds (200 kilograms) of higher-enriched uranium in a form that can be turned into weapons much more quickly. Experts say 550 pounds (250 kilograms) of that 20 percent-enriched uranium are needed to produce a single warhead.
Iran says it expects Arak, the plutonium producing reactor, to be completed and go online sometime next year. It would need additional facilities to reprocess the plutonium into weapons-grade material and the U.N's nuclear agency monitoring Iran's atomic activities says it has seen no evidence of such a project.
Fabius said Iran is opposed to suspending work on Arak while nuclear negotiations go on in attempt to reach a first-stage agreement and then a comprehensive final deal limiting Tehran's atomic work. He said that "for us" suspension was absolutely necessary, but it was unclear if that meant France was alone in seeing the issue as non-negotiable or whether he was speaking for the rest of the negotiating group.
Iran is also being asked to blend down "a great part of this stock at 20 percent, to 5 percent," Fabius said. Uranium enriched to 5 percent is considered reactor fuel grade and upgrading it to weapons-level takes much longer than for 20 percent enriched uranium. He also suggested that the six powers were looking for an Iranian commitment to cap future enrichment at 5 percent.
"We are hoping for a deal, but for the moment there are still issues that have not been resolved," Fabius said.
Signaling that the talks could end without agreement, British Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke of unresolved issues and told reporters "there is no fixed time for us to reach a conclusion."
Any agreement would be a breakthrough after nearly a decade of mostly inconclusive talks, but would only be the start of a long process to reduce Iran's potential ability to produce nuclear arms, with no guarantee of ultimate success.
Kerry and his European counterparts arrived in Geneva on Friday with the talks at a critical stage following a full day of negotiations Thursday and said some obstacles remained in the way of any agreement offering sanctions reductions for nuclear concessions.
The presence of Lavrov and word that Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Baodong Li also was headed to the talks provided fresh hope for at least an interim deal.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Friday any agreement in the making was a "bad deal" that gave Iran a pass by offering to lift sanctions for cosmetic concessions that he said left intact Tehran's nuclear weapons-making ability. Israel is strongly critical of any deal that even slightly lifts sanctions unless Iran is totally stripped of technology that can make nuclear arms.
Asked about Netanyahu's criticism, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said "any critique of the deal is premature" because an agreement has not been reached.
The White House later said President Barack Obama called Netanyahu to update him on the ongoing talks and said Obama affirmed he's still committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The White House said Obama and Netanyahu will stay in close contact.
Kerry tempered reports of progress, warning of "important gaps" that must be overcome.
But Lavrov's deputy, Sergei Ryabov, was quoted as saying that Moscow expects them to produce a "lasting result expected by the international community."
The talks primarily focus on the size and output of Iran's enrichment program, which can create both reactor fuel and weapons-grade material suitable for a nuclear bomb. Iran insists it is pursuing only nuclear energy, medical treatments and research, but the U.S. and its allies fear that Iran could turn this material into the fissile core of nuclear warheads.