Iran and six world powers are making progress in talks aimed at ending a decade-long nuclear stand-off between Tehran and the West, but the discussions are "tough", Iran's foreign minister said on Thursday, Reuters reported.
Mohammad Javad Zarif made the comment to Reuters after a first session in the two-day negotiations in Geneva, which are seeking to build on a diplomatic opening after the June election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, as Iran's new president.
The powers hope to reach a "first step" deal to ease concern over Tehran's nuclear program - which the West fears may be aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability - though both sides say a breakthrough is far from certain.
Iran, which says its nuclear program is a peaceful energy project, wants them to start lifting tightening sanctions that are severely damaging the OPEC producer's economy.
"The talks went well," Zarif told Reuters after the morning session between Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. "I'm hopeful that we can move forward. We are making progress, but it's tough," he said.
Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said he hoped a deal could be struck but that the sides remained far apart.
"The differences are widespread and deep. This is undeniable. And continuing the negotiations will not be an easy task, but this does not cause us to lose hope," he said, adding he was still hopeful a "final understanding" could be reached.
A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is coordinating talks with Iran on behalf of the powers, described the morning session as "good" but declined to give details.
Michael Mann also said discussions would continue in smaller groups in the afternoon before Ashton and Zarif, who also had a breakfast meeting, were due to meet again.
"The talks are extremely complex and they are now getting into a serious phase. We very much hope there will be concrete progress here in the next couple of days," he told reporters.
ROLLING BACK NUCLEAR PROGRAMME?
The United States and its allies say they are encouraged by Tehran's shift to friendlier rhetoric since the election of Rouhani.
But the Western allies say Iran must back its words with action and take concrete steps to scale back its atomic work.
"What we're looking for is a first phase, a first step, an initial understanding that stops Iran's nuclear program from moving forward and rolls it back for the first time in decades," a senior U.S. official said on the eve of the talks.
That would help buy time needed for Iran and the powers to reach a broader diplomatic settlement in a dispute that could otherwise plunge the Middle East into a new war.
The six nations want Iran to suspend its most sensitive uranium enrichment efforts, reduce its stockpile of such material and diminish its capacity to produce it in the future.
In return for any concessions, Iran wants the powers to lift the sanctions that have slashed its oil revenues by 60 percent in the past two years and devalued its rial currency by more than half.