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US, Iran say big gaps remain as deadline looms in nuclear talks

Big gaps remain in talks between world powers and Iran aimed at reaching a lasting agreement on the Islamic republic's nuclear activities by the end of next week, both sides said Sunday as foreign ministers flew into Vienna to push negotiations along.

VIENNA: Big gaps remain in talks between world powers and Iran aimed at reaching a lasting agreement on the Islamic republic's nuclear activities by the end of next week, both sides said Sunday as foreign ministers flew into Vienna to push negotiations along.

"We have some very significant gaps," US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on arrival.

"On practically all the important issues differences persist and we have not been able to narrow them," one of Iran's top negotiators, Abbas Araqchi, told Al-Alam television.

The unbridged positions threaten to prevent the much sought-after, historic deal being struck by its July 20 deadline, when a six-month interim accord with Iran runs out.

If no agreement is reached by Sunday next week, both sides can decide to extend the interim pact for some months to keep talking.

In a sign of the high stakes at play, Kerry and the foreign ministers of France, Britain and Germany flew into Vienna on Sunday to face off with Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Russia and China, the other two members of the P5+1 group comprising the five permanent UN Security Council members states plus Germany, were sending only lower-ranking officials however.

The Western ministers were to use the opportunity to also discuss between themselves the deadly conflict escalating between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza. Calls for a ceasefire are mounting, but have so far been ignored by the warring sides.

Kerry, coming directly from Afghanistan where he brokered a breakthrough to end an election crisis there, will also seek to ease a major row over spying with Germany, which saw the CIA chief in Berlin expelled from the country.

Speaking about the Iran talks, Kerry said: "Obviously we have some very significant gaps. We need to see if we can make some progress."

He added that "it is vital to make certain that Iran is not going to develop a nuclear weapon, that their programme is peaceful".

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also underlined the big gaps remaining when he arrived.

"If we can reach a deal by July 20, bravo," he said.

"If we we can't there are two possibilities: one, we either extend, a so-called rollover; or we will have to say that unfortunately there is no perspective for a deal.

"We don't know yet. It's not yet July 20. We are trying to go in the right direction."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague also underlined the "significant gaps" on his Twitter feed after arriving, and said talks were at "a critical stage".

Araqchi, in his interview with Al-Alam, said "differences have been narrowed" on "certain" other issues and "some solutions have been put forward" in the final-round negotiations which started on July 3.

But on the major divergences, "it is still not clear if we will get there," he said.

The core sticking point of Iran's uranium enrichment -- an activity can produce fuel for Iran's sole nuclear plant or, if further enriched, the matter for an atomic bomb -- has run up against declarations by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader who sets the parameters for his country's negotiators.

Khamenei on Tuesday declared that Iran wants to immensely increase its enrichment capacities for theoretical future nuclear power plants -- directly challenging the P5+1's demand that those capacities be greatly reduced.

Araqchi said: "Concerning enrichment, our position is clear and rational. As the supreme guide said, the enrichment programme has been planned with the real needs of the country in mind, meaning our need to ensure reactor fuel."

On Saturday, Araqchi has said Iran was ready to walk away from the talks if the world powers pushed on with "excessive" demands.

The UN Security Council and its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have long been concerned about Iran's outsized atomic activities and secret construction of two uranium enrichment sites, one of which is heavily fortified under a mountain. The Security Council has passed six resolutions demanding Iran cease all enrichment, which Tehran has defied.

Despite Iranian insistence that the enrichment is exclusively for energy production and medical purposes, the P5+1 fears Tehran's programme was aimed at attaining nuclear weapon capability.

The talks are designed limit Iran's atomic activities in a way that they can only be used for civilian ends, and that any "breakout" point is pushed back years. Washington wants Iran's uranium enrichment limited for at least 10 years, a senior US official said Saturday.

In return, Iran would be permitted to carry out reduced enrichment under close IAEA monitoring and Western sanctions that have crippled its economy would be lifted.

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