European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in New York City to kick off the new round of nuclear talks on September 17, 2014. (Twitter/EU)
NEW YORK, Sept. 18 (UPI) -- The latest round of Iranian nuclear negotiations is scheduled to begin Friday with a plenary session at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
The talks, which will be chaired by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, seek to reach a final Iranian nuclear agreement. "The aim is to secure a comprehensive solution that will reassure international community of peaceful nature of Iranian nuclear prog," Ashton's spokesman, Michael Mann, said Wednesday via Twitter.
"Gaps on the core issues remain huge," Mann acknowledged ahead of Friday's gathering, "but clear objective is to work towards closing the gaps and to seek maximum progress."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged those "very real gaps" during talks in July that failed to reach an agreement by the original July 20 deadline and resulted in a four month extension.
Delegates from Iran and the P5+1 countries -- the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) plus Germany -- have until November to reach a final agreement.
Ashton met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif ahead of the talks on Wednesday in New York.
Zarif projected optimism Thursday about the coming talks. In an exclusive interview with the National Interest, Zarif said "there is a deal at hand. Within reach."
"We agreed in Geneva last November to have a long-term agreement with two objectives. One objective is to make sure that Iran's nuclear program will remain exclusively peaceful, and the second objective is to remove all the sanctions, and I think we can achieve both objectives rather easily. ...
So, there is a deal at hand. Within reach. The question is whether the United States will come to the realization that sanctions were a means to an end -- in the best case scenario -- not an end in themselves. And if there is a deal, then sanctions are not such a big asset to be so obsessed with."
U.S. officials have pressed Iran for guarantees that its nuclear program will remain peaceful and not be used as a weapon. In July, as talks stalled, Kerry sought concrete assurances from Zarif, "not just to declare that they will not obtain a nuclear weapon, but to demonstrate in the actions they take beyond any reasonable doubt that any Iranian nuclear program, now and going forward, is exclusively for peaceful purposes."
On Thursday, Zarif indicated Iran is willing to offer those assurances.
"Iran is willing to put limits on its nuclear program to make sure, through scientifically proven ways, to make sure that whatever we do will not lead to a nuclear weapon, will not even lead to fissile material for a nuclear weapon."
The P5+1 delegates, also known as the E3+3, met with Iranian officials throughout 2013 to negotiate a cessation or reduction in Iran's nuclear program. The JPOA was signed on November 24, 2013, and went into effect on January 20.