Delicate talks between Iran and world powers on how to implement a landmark nuclear deal were to resume in Geneva Thursday, as France's foreign minister cast doubt on their chance of success.
The technical talks were set to begin at 3:00 pm (1400 GMT) in the Swiss city, Iran's deputy foreign minister and lead negotiator Abbas Araqchi, who is not personally taking part in the expert-level negotiations, told Iranian state television.
Experts held four days of talks in Vienna last week, but the Iranians walked out after Washington expanded its sanctions blacklist against Tehran.
Tehran was prepared to continue the talks after EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton "made the assurance that the world powers, particularly the United States, will continue the talks in goodwill... and that they are serious about implementing the deal," Araqchi told Iran's state broadcaster on Wednesday.
Under the landmark deal struck in Geneva on November 24, Iran agreed to roll back parts of its nuclear programme for six months in exchange for modest sanctions relief and a promise by Western powers not to impose new sanctions.
But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, one of the key players in the negotiations with Tehran, cast doubt Thursday on the chances of a final nuclear deal.
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"It is unclear if the Iranians will accept to definitively abandon any capacity of getting a weapon or only agree to interrupt the nuclear programme," he told the Wall Street Journal.
"What is at stake is to ensure that there is no breakout capacity," Fabius said, referring to Iran's possible ability to relaunch a weapons programme from dormant sites.
During the six-month nuclear freeze, which has not yet begun, Iran and world powers aim to hammer out a long-term comprehensive accord to decisively end the standoff over Iran's contested nuclear programme, after a decade of failed attempts and rising tensions.
Iran denies wanting nuclear weapons but many in the international community suspect otherwise, and neither Israel -- widely considered to be the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear-armed state -- nor Washington have ruled out military action.
The fresh round of negotiations, being held at an undisclosed venue in Geneva, is scheduled to last through Friday, but Araqchi said talks could be extended into the weekend.
He told Iran's state broadcaster that the head of his ministry's political and international department, Hamid Baeedinejad, would lead the Iranian delegation, made up of nuclear experts and experts on the banking, transport and oil sector sanctions.
Delegations for the six powers negotiating with Iran, the so-called P5+1 group comprising the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany, would also be made up of technical experts, Ashton's spokesman Michael Mann told AFP.