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Bridging gaps on agenda for next round of Iran nuke talks

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — The next round of nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers will attempt to “bridge the gaps” toward a comprehensive agreement, the top European negotiator said.

“A lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences ahead,” Catherine Ashton, the top European Union foreign policy official, said Wednesday at a news conference summing up two days of talks in Vienna between Iran and the six powers — United States, Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China.

“We will now move to the next phase in the negotiations in which we will aim to bridge the gaps in all the key areas and work on the concrete elements of a possible comprehensive agreement,” she said.

The next talks are scheduled to take place in the Austrian capital over two days starting May 13.

Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, addressing the same news conference, read the same statement in his native Farsi but added that he believed the sides were “50-60” percent close to a deal.

The deadline for such a deal is the end of July, although the talks may then be extended.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, on Wednesday told Iranian nuclear scientists that negotiations would not “stop or slow down any of Iran’s activities in nuclear research and development,” according to a Reuters translation of his remarks.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry faced blunt questions from the Senate on the talks, including repeated reminders that Congress must approve multiple aspects of any deal, especially those concerning sanctions rollbacks.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concern at reports that the United States would settle for a “breakout” for Iran of six to 12 months, referring to the period in which Iran could create enough fissile material for a nuclear device.

“A deal that would ultimately unravel the entire sanctions regime for a six- to 12-month lead time is not far from where we are today,” Menendez said. “I’m trying to get a sense of these parameters, because to the extent that the administration has asked for forbearance, part of it is going to have to be based on having an understanding of what is the parameters.”

Kerry said that Iran’s breakout time now stood at two months, and that six to 12 months was “significantly more” than that, but adding that the United States would not necessarily settle for even the longer period. He said the key component of the agreement would be rigorous monitoring.

“The greater likelihood is that at the end of this, we hope to be able to come to you with an agreement that has the most extensive and comprehensive and accountable verification process that can be achieved in order to know what they’re doing,” Kerry said.

He also said that in every meeting with Iranian officials, U.S. officials raise the status of three Americans held in Iran, including Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who is Jewish.

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