GENEVA (Reuters) - Iran and the United States met in Geneva for bilateral talks on Thursday as international diplomacy intensifies to end a decade-old dispute over Tehran's atomic activities by a new deadline in late November.
The office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton confirmed Iran and six world powers would hold their first negotiating round since they failed to meet a July 20 target date for an agreement in New York on Sept. 18.
The deadline was extended until Nov. 24 after six months of talks because wide gaps persisted over the future scope of Iran's uranium enrichment program, which can have both civilian and military applications.
The six powers - the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain - aim to persuade Iran to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for phasing out sanctions that have severely hurt its oil-dependent economy.
The election last year of President Hassan Rouhani, widely seen as a pragmatist, raised hopes of a settlement of the stand-off after years of tension and fears of a new Middle East war, and an interim accord was reached between Iran and the six powers in Geneva late last year.
But Western diplomats say the sides remain far apart on what a final deal should look like - especially on the issue of how many enrichment centrifuges Iran can operate - and that a successful outcome in the negotiations is far from guaranteed.
Western countries suspect Iran’s program is aimed at seeking the capability to build a nuclear bomb. Tehran says it is a peaceful project to generate electricity.
Thursday's meeting in Geneva between senior Iranian and U.S. officials was the second time they held talks in the Swiss city in the past month.
State news agency IRNA and a U.S. official confirmed the discussions were underway.
"I believe we are still not in a position to judge whether or not we can reach a deal before the deadline of Nov. 24, but we are trying our best and are hopeful and optimistic," Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told France 24 on Wednesday after talks with French officials in Paris this week.
"The good news is that both sides are serious enough to come to a deal by the deadline," Araqchi said. One of Iran's chief negotiators, he took part in the Geneva talks on Thursday.
The United States last week penalized a number of Iranian and other foreign companies, banks and airlines for violating sanctions against Tehran, saying it was sending a signal that there should be no evasion of sanctions while talks continue.
Rouhani said on Saturday the sanctions were against the spirit of negotiations, but added he was not pessimistic about the viability of the talks.
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman were in the U.S. delegation at the Geneva talks, which will last for two days, the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
Araqchi told France 24 he believed a compromise was "quite possible" on Iran's enrichment centrifuge capacity. "If the other side avoids excessive demands then I believe a compromise is possible," he said.
Although the United States is part of the six-power negotiating track, any workable deal will likely have to be based on a bilateral agreement between Washington and Tehran. The United States cut off ties with Iran during a hostage crisis shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
High-level bilateral meetings between the United States and Iran, virtually unthinkable in years past, have become almost routine on the sidelines of the nuclear talks.
Ashton's office also confirmed that Iran and France, Britain and Germany would meet in Vienna on Sept. 11. Ashton is the coordinator of contacts with Iran on behalf of the six powers.
Additional reporting by Michelle Moghtader in Dubai, Fredrik Dahl in Vienna, Martin Santa in Brussels and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Fredrik Dahl