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France calls for allies to be firm in Iran nuclear talks

| Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, 9:57 p.m.

GENEVA — France demanded on Thursday that the United States and its allies show “firmness” in negotiating with Iran, injecting new uncertainty into the high-stakes talks to curb Iran's nuclear program.

Echoing his statement of two weeks ago, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said agreement with Iran “can only be possible based on firmness.” He said Iran had failed to accept an offer drafted by the United States, France and four other countries after France's last intervention and added: “I hope they will accept it.”

Two weeks ago, Fabius said the agreement must be “serious and credible” and that France would not play a “fool's game.” His statement appeared to be a swipe at the Obama administration, which had a key role in drafting the accord.

The talks in Geneva, the third in five weeks, are intended to reach an interim accord for the next six months, during which a comprehensive agreement would be negotiated to curb Iran's nuclear enrichment program. That program has generated a stockpile of low-enriched uranium for which Iran has no apparent need and 440 pounds of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity, a few steps short of the grade needed in a nuclear weapon.

Iranian officials were highly critical of France. Abbas Araqchi, Iran's deputy foreign minister, said differences of opinion among the six countries in the previous round had slowed the negotiations and eroded the Iranian side's trust that its negotiating partners would remain committed to potential agreements.

“We expect the West to have a united stance over the draft,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the head of the delegation, told Iranian state television.

Araqchi also said any deal must accept Iran's right under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium if it's used for peaceful purposes, which the U.S. has been unwilling to acknowledge explicitly. But he hedged his demand, saying the extent, level and location of enrichment were negotiable.

One European official, speaking only anonymously as a condition of the news briefing, spoke of “noise coming from various directions” but declined to say how it had affected the negotiations.

At Iran's demand, the structure of the negotiations shifted Thursday to direct talks between Zarif and Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, who heads the negotiating team on behalf of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. The Ashton-Zarif talks lasted 4 12 hours and were “very substantial discussions,” a top U.S. official said, also speaking only anonymously as a condition of the briefing. They were “totally focused on digging into the details of the negotiations and working to make progress,” the official said.

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