Iran and six world powers started a round of talks in Vienna on Tuesday, hoping to make progress in their years-old dispute over Tehran's nuclear intentions despite a crisis over Crimea that has fuelled tensions among the powers.
Russia, the US and other world powers will try to put their sharp differences over Ukraine to one side on for their latest round of nuclear talks with Iran.
It is the second in a planned series of meetings this year that aims to transform a November interim deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany into a lasting accord by July.
Signing of interim nuclear deal. November 2013, Geneva (Photo: AP)
Such an agreement - seen as highly ambitious - would put an end to a decade-old standoff over Iran's nuclear program and silence for good what US President Barack Obama has called the "drums of war".
The current round of negotiations are expected to last until Wednesday and the Tuesday morning session will be presided over by Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who represents the six countries.
The talks will then continue at deputy level with Seyyed Abbas Araqchi representing Iran and Helga Schmid picking up for Ashton, Iranian Press TV reported.
So far, even with differences over Syria,
the six powers have shown a united front over Iran, but events in Ukraine in recent weeks have precipitated the worst crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War.
Following Sunday's referendum in Crimea - slammed as illegal by the White House and the European Union - Brussels and Washington on Monday slapped travel bans and asset freezes on top Russian and Ukrainian figures.
Already downbeat about prospects for a deal with Iran, Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department official now at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the spat made him "even more pessimistic".
"The Russians will ... be less likely to make sacrifices for the sake of unity over the Iran issues," Fitzpatrick told AFP. The Iranians, he said, "now have more reason to wait out the six powers".
Even before the Ukraine crisis erupted, Russian President Vladimir Putin was reported to be discussing a major deal with Iran whereby Moscow would buy Iranian oil in exchange for money, goods and help in building new nuclear reactors.
This would undermine Washington's efforts to cut off Iran's main source of revenue - a strategy which the US credits with forcing Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place.
Mark Hibbs from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said this "huge barter deal" is a "carrot Moscow can dangle constructively to wrestle more concessions from Iran."
"Or it can move forward unilaterally and damage the negotiation," Hibbs told AFP. "Up to Putin to choose."
Describing a deal with Iran as a "Rubik's Cube" puzzle, a senior US official said Friday that the parties were "moving forward in a positive way", although "many gaps" remained.
Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, installed last year by Iran's relatively moderate new President Hassan Rouhani, said Sunday the talks would be "more serious than previous ones," but said he expects a trickier round of talks this week than the previous meeting in mid-February as the two sides try to iron out details such as Iran's Arak heavy water reactor and levels of uranium enrichment.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has granted the Iranian nuclear team "carte blanche" to provide guarantees to the West that the country's nuclear programme is peaceful, said a senior Iranian official who asked not to be named.
"But the red line is closure of any nuclear site and stopping enrichment," the official said. "The talks are becoming more and more difficult because hardliners in Iran are watching any outcome very closely." He was alluding to powerful conservatives in Iran's security and clerical establishments deeply suspicious of Rouhani's diplomatic opening to the West.
Under November's agreement, Iran froze key parts of its nuclear programme in return for minor sanctions relief and a promise of no new sanctions. Although it could be extended, the deal is currently due to expire on July 20.
Iran has not permanently dismantled a single piece of atomic equipment. The bulk of UN and Western sanctions remain in place, depriving Iran of billions of dollars in lost oil revenues every week.
The United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany now want Iran to reduce permanently - or at least for a long time - the scope of its activities, as well as more intrusive UN inspections.
Iran, denying that it wants nuclear weapons, wants all sanctions lifted and its "right" to a peaceful nuclear program recognized.
"The final agreement will fall short of both sides? ideals," said Ali Vaez, Iran expert at the International Crisis Group.
"The West will have to live with more Iranian centrifuges (for producing nuclear material) that it deems appropriate and Iran will have to accept less sanctions relief that it desires," Vaez told AFP.