July 9, 2014 / 3:10 PM / 5 years ago

EU says powers united on Iran after France suggests splits

VIENNA (Reuters) - The six world powers negotiating with Iran over its nuclear programme are “completely united”, an EU spokesman said on Wednesday, a day after France suggested there were differences between Russia and some of the others.

The group of countries - the United States, Russia, France, Germany, China and Britain - “has been united and is still united”, Michael Mann, spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told reporters. Ashton coordinates the talks on behalf of the six states.

Mann said they remained determined to try to reach an agreement by a self-imposed July 20 deadline. Some diplomats and experts say they believe the negotiations may have to be extended, in view of persistently wide gaps in positions.

“We are working very hard, we are working on drafting the text,” Mann said. “But there are still obvious, serious gaps to close and we are determined to work hard to try and close those gaps.”

On Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said “differences in approach” between Russia and some of the other five world powers had cropped up in the past few days. He did not say what those differences were. The talks resumed in Vienna last week and meetings continued on Wednesday.

Diplomats say France and the other Western powers have broadly held out for stricter terms with Iran than have Russia and China. The two have close trade ties with Iran and opposed the West’s racheting up of sanctions, saying this could play into the hands of Iranian hardliners suspicious of any talks.

The overall goal of the negotiations is a deal reining in Iran’s nuclear energy programme to minimise the risk of any diversions into bomb production, in exchange for a removal of tough economic sanctions imposed on Tehran.

The powers and Iran have less than two weeks to bridge wide differences on the future scope of its uranium enrichment activity and other issues if they are to meet the target date for a deal.

Diplomats earlier this week said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers from the powers might travel to Vienna soon to join the negotiations.

Mann said Ashton was “thinking about when to engage the ministers as we move the process forward” but that no decision had yet been taken. “It would be an opportunity to take stock of where we are in the process.”

Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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