WASHINGTON — After days of rising expectations, diplomats from six world powers failed in marathon talks with Iran to seal a preliminary deal aimed at launching comprehensive negotiations on Tehran's disputed nuclear program.
Foreign ministers, who had hoped for a breakthrough on one of the world's most urgent security challenges, said instead early Sunday that they had been unable in 161/2 hours of talks Saturday to resolve issues raised by France.
As a result, they said, lower-level officials will return to Geneva in 10 days to resume their effort to end a decade of diplomatic stalemate on the issue.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, told reporters that "it was natural that when we started dealing with the details, there would be differences." But he insisted that the group had made progress in three days of talks, and that "we are all on the same wavelength."
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who had flown to Geneva on Friday when it appeared there might be a breakthrough in the negotiations, said, "There's no question in my mind that we're closer now ... than when we came."
The world powers have been seeking to design a deal that would offer Iran a temporary easing of the punishing sanctions on its economy in return for temporary, limited curbs on its nuclear development program. The group — consisting of the U.S., France, China, Russia, Germany and Britain — wants to prevent Iran from advancing toward nuclear weapons capability over the next six months or so it would take to negotiate a final deal.
The nations fear that Iran may be seeking the capability to build a nuclear bomb, despite its declarations that it is seeking to develop nuclear resources only for energy purposes.
But the draft text of an agreement being developed was challenged Friday and Saturday by France, which wanted to toughen the terms of the deal offered to Iran on a heavy-water nuclear plant now under construction, and on its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium. France also wanted to adjust the terms of the sanctions relief offered to Iran.
"One wants a deal … but not a sucker's deal," Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, told a French radio station, France Inter, in an interview early Saturday.
The group ground through a series of meetings with various combinations of diplomats, even convening a full gathering of foreign ministers just before midnight in a last attempt to dash across the finish line.
Instead, the diplomats emerged with polite praise for one another but without the prize they were seeking.
Diplomats of other Western countries grumbled about France's late objections, and Fabius' decision to discuss their differences in the open, at a time when the Americans and other delegations had agreed to keep the discussion under wraps to prevent the deal's many detractors from homing in on what they view as its defects.
"There is some unhappiness with Paris," an official of another European country acknowledged.
Kerry signaled that there had also been Iranian resistance. "It takes time to build confidence between countries that have really been at odds with each other for a long time," he said.
Some analysts argued that the outcome was not a major setback since the talks would continue. Iran, they said, needs desperately to relieve the pressure on its economy, and the world powers want to keep Iran from building a nuclear bomb and avoid the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli attack to stop it from doing so.
Still, some observers said the absence of a deal may provide an opportunity for the growing ranks of the deal's opponents in the United States and abroad.
The Israeli government has strongly objected to the yet-unfinished deal, which it fears would give Iran an economic breather while allowing it to continue developing parts of its sprawling nuclear infrastructure.
The proposed deal would require Iran to stop producing medium-enriched uranium, which can be easily turned into bomb fuel, and to convert it to a form that can't be used for that purpose, diplomats said. But the deal would allow continuation of production of low-enriched uranium for civilian use, and it wouldn't force dismantlement of key parts of Tehran's nuclear infrastructure, as Israel believes is necessary, diplomats say.
Naftali Bennett, an Israeli government minister, Saturday posted a letter on his Facebook page urging the Jewish community in the United States and around the world to mobilize pressure on their governments to block a deal.
In Congress, key legislators of both parties have declared that they intend to push for additional economic sanctions, a move that could drive Iran from the negotiating table, the administration says. And America's allies in the Persian Gulf have been voicing their concern that the deal could strengthen their regional rival.
France has long taken a harder line than many other members of the six-nation group, but its challenge also suggested significant differences in a group that, in an effort to intimidate Iran, has long boasted that it was united.
"Seems as if the most difficult talks in Geneva are not with Iran, but within the Western group," tweeted Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister. "Not particularly good."
And the struggle to reach the first-phase deal suggested how hard it will be to work out a final comprehensive deal, which involves many more politically sensitive and difficult choices.
The next meeting, on Nov. 20 and 21, will involve diplomats a level down from foreign minister (Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman will represent the U.S.). The foreign ministers had convened in Geneva last week because they needed to be present to bless a long-awaited deal.
The fact that they are delegating the next meeting signals that they don't expect the session to produce an agreement. Still, Kerry told reporters that the foreign ministers can be summoned to Geneva as needed.
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, CT Now