(Updates with Araghchi rebuff to critics)
By Michelle Moghtader
ABU DHABI, April 16 Iranian hardliners stepped
up criticism of Tehran's negotiations with world powers over its
nuclear programme on Wednesday, but negotiators defended the
planned deal that could lead to an end to economic sanctions.
The hardliners, unsettled by the shift to a more moderate
foreign policy since President Hassan Rouhani took office in
August, have repeatedly criticised the talks in recent months
but Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei backs them.
Iran and six world powers - the United States, France,
Germany, Britain, Russia and China - struck an interim deal in
November under which Tehran agreed to limit some of its nuclear
work in return for the easing some sanctions imposed on Iran for
its disputed atomic program.
They set a July 20 deadline to clinch a long-term deal that
would allow a gradual lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions.
In their latest charge, critics of the negotiations leaked
an audio recording purporting to show Deputy Foreign Minister
Abbas Araghchi criticising Rouhani's view of the nuclear
programme, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Araghchi lashed out at his critics on Wednesday, saying the
audio filed was "selected and distorted" and urging them not to
play politics with what he called Iran's nuclear rights.
"I am worried. How far is this toying with our national
interests going to go?" he was quoted as saying by IRNA, which
did not name his hardline critics but said they appeared to
belong to the far-right Steadfast Front party.
FOREIGN MINISTER OPTIMISTIC
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told Reuters he did not fear
opposition from hardliners and was optimistic about reaching a
comprehensive agreement with world powers by July 20.
"There is the political will to get an answer," he said in
Abu Dhabi on Tuesday before boarding a plane to Tehran.
"The domestic audience will be satisfied if we have a good
deal," he said. "Of course some people will never be satisfied
but that is fine because we have a pluralistic society."
On Tuesday, the critics claimed Iran has had difficulty
receiving billions of dollars of oil revenue unfrozen under an
interim agreement struck with world powers in November.
Majid Takht-Ravanchi, another deputy foreign minister,
promptly denied that, saying Iran's central bank has had no
problem accessing the unblocked funds.
Araghchi, a key negotiator in the talks that produced the
November interim deal, is one of the few carry-overs from the
previous administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has also
participated in bilateral discussions with the United States.
Iran and the six powers ended their latest round of talks in
Vienna last week and said they would start drafting an agreement
ahead of their next meeting there on May 13.
The Islamic Republic denies accusations by Israel, Western
powers and their allies that it has tried to develop the
capability to produce atomic weapons under the cover of a
civilian nuclear energy program.
During his visit to the United Arab Emirates, Zarif met with
officials including Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed
an-Nahyan and Energy Minister Suhail bin Mohammed al-Mazroui.
Efforts to resolve the civil war in Syria were also among
the topics discussed, but officials did not elaborate.
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)