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Iranian foreign minister blames West for snag in nuclear talks

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif rejected U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s pinning of blame on Iran for the lack of a deal on its nuclear programme last week, saying splits between Western countries prevented a breakthrough.

Responding to remarks by Kerry in Abu Dhabi on Monday, Zarif said that singling out Iran only served to undermine confidence in the Geneva negotiations, which will resume on November 20.

The United States, European Union powers and Iran worked hard for months on a proposal to help end the 10-year standoff over Iran’s nuclear activity, diplomats said. Hopes for a deal rose so high that foreign ministers of six world powers travelled to Geneva to put their weight behind the talks.

But by Saturday, the unscheduled third day of negotiations, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris could not accept a “fool’s game” - in other words, one-sided concessions to Iran - and the negotiations broke off without agreement.

Diplomats from other Western nations at first reacted angrily and accused the French of trying to upstage the other powers and causing unnecessary trouble for the talks.

On Monday though, Kerry said the major powers were unified on Saturday when they presented a proposal to the Iranians. “The French signed off on it, we signed off on it, and everybody agreed it was a fair proposal. There was unity, but Iran couldn’t take it at that particular moment, they weren’t able to accept that particular thing,” Kerry told reporters.

The White House backed that up on Tuesday, with spokesman Jay Carney saying Washington and its key allies were united in Geneva and “we remain united.

Zarif denied the Islamic Republic was to blame.

“Mr Secretary, was it Iran that gutted over half of U.S. draft Thursday night? and publicly commented against it Friday morning?” Zarif asked on Twitter.

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“No amount of spinning can change what happened within (the group of powers) in Geneva from 6 PM Thursday to 545 PM Saturday. But it can further erode confidence,” he tweeted.

“We are committed to constructive engagement. Interaction on equal footing key to achieve shared objectives.”

Zarif’s view of events was supported by a Russian Foreign Ministry source. Commenting on Kerry’s remarks, the source told Reuters: “Such an interpretation simplifies extremely and even distorts the essence of what happened in Geneva.

“The American-prepared draft of a joint document suited the Iranian side,” the source said. “But since a decision at talks in such a format is made by consensus, it was not possible to reach a final agreement, unfortunately. But it was not the Iranians’ fault.”

Western nations are determined to stop Iran from acquiring the means to build nuclear weapons, an intent Tehran denies having. The United States and Israel have repeatedly said they reserve all options, a reference to possible military strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, to achieve that aim.

Iran says its uranium enrichment programme is entirely peaceful and insists it has the right to refine uranium for civilian nuclear power plants and medical research.

On the table is a draft interim deal that would cap Iran’s nuclear fuel-making capacity and make it more transparent to U.N. anti-proliferation inspectors in exchange for limited and reversible relief from economic sanctions imposed on Tehran.

The U.N. nuclear agency chief said Tuesday inspectors will be ready to verify the implementation of any agreement between Iran and six world powers.

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Kerry struck a more positive tone on Tuesday, saying he was encouraged by the progress in Geneva, which built on a diplomatic opening to the big powers created by Iran’s election in June of moderate Hassan Rouhani as president.

“We were very, very close, actually extremely close,” Kerry told BBC radio on Tuesday. “We haven’t been speaking for 35 years. We just talked more in 30 hours than we have in those prior 30 years.”

Kerry said later it would be a mistake for the U.S. Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran while negotiations continued. The secretary of state was due to brief lawmakers on Iran Wednesday.

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Washington broke off diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980 after radical Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days.

Though the United States and Iran remain at odds over Tehran’s backing of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war and a number of regional security issues, Kerry said the talks were solely focused on the nuclear dispute.

“We’re not having a geopolitical conversation. Right now the focus with Iran is Iran’s nuclear plan,” he said when asked about the wider implications of the talks.

“We spent 30 seconds on Syria, both agreeing it’s a very serious issue, it needs to be resolved and that’s it.”

By moving towards a deal with Iran, even one limited to only the nuclear dispute, the United States risks alienating its allies in the region: Israel and the Gulf Arab states.

Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, a rightist member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, plans to meet senior members of Congress in Washington on Thursday to voice Israel’s opposition to the prospective nuclear deal.

“(The proposed deal) runs the danger of legitimising Iran as a nuclear threshold nation. That is clearly against the interests of the international community,” Netanyahu said in a speech on Tuesday.

“Every day that passes Iran is under increasing economic pressure. There is no reason to rush to a bad deal,” he said. A good deal (is one) that dismantles Iran’s military nuclear capability. The deadline for achieving this is the day that this is achieved, not sooner.”

Support for Israel has been traditionally strong in Congress, where a number of key lawmakers have been calling for tighter sanctions against Iran despite warnings from the White House that such a step could harm the delicate diplomacy.

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards and hardline Shi’ite clerics are also opposed to any detente with the West, saying the United States cannot be trusted and its real aim is “regime change” in the Islamic Republic.

But Rouhani’s approach, which he bills as the best way to get sanctions hobbling Iran’s oil-based economy lifted, has crucial backing from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ordered Iranian hardliners not to interfere with the talks.

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Paul Eckert in Washington; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Doina Chaicu