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Geneva (AFP) – Senior Iranian and U.S. officials were poised to hold direct talks in Geneva Monday aimed at bridging gaps on Tehran’s disputed nuclear program ahead of a July deadline for a deal.

For the Islamic republic, the goal is to make a leap towards ending the international sanctions that have battered its economy.

For Washington and its allies, the aim is to make certain that what Iran says is a peaceful atomic power program is not a covert attempt to build a nuclear bomb.

The talks were expected to last two days and begin at 2:00 pm in the Intercontinental, an upscale Geneva hotel.

It is a traditional venue for closed-door diplomatic negotiations, most recently hosting sessions on Syria and Ukraine.

Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s vice foreign minister and nuclear pointman, said Sunday that the tete-a-tete with U.S. officials was essential as the negotiations are delicately poised.

The Geneva meeting marks the first time since the 1980s that Tehran and Washington have held official, direct talks on the nuclear issue outside the wider P5+1 process.

The P5+1 group of permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — plus Germany have long sought to reach a settlement over Iran’s nuclear program.

But with the last round of talks in Vienna in May yielding little, there has been concern that the process is stalling.

The announcement on Saturday of the Geneva meeting came as a surprise, but appeared to confirm the need for secondary steps to close big gaps between Tehran and Washington.

“We have always had bilateral discussions with the United States in the margin of the P5+1 group, but since the talks have entered a serious phase, we want to have separate consultations,” Araqchi said, quoted by official IRNA news agency.

“Most of the sanctions were imposed by the US, and other countries from the P5+1 group were not involved,” he added.

The U.S. team in Geneva was to be led by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Jake Sullivan, a top White House adviser.

They were part of a small team who through months of secret talks in Oman managed to bring Iran back to the P5+1 negotiating table last year.

Araqchi welcomed Burns’s presence, saying he hoped it would be “as positive during these negotiations” as previously.

In addition to Burns and Sullivan, Washington has also sent its main nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman.

The overall P5+1 talks are chaired by the European Union, and Brussels’ foreign policy spokesman Michael Mann said the U.S.-Iran bilateral meeting was part of an “intensified negotiating process.”

The EU’s political director, Helga Schmid, was set to join the meeting.

A senior U.S. administration official said Saturday that the Geneva talks would “give us a timely opportunity to exchange views in the context of the next P5+1 round in Vienna,” between June 16-20.

After decades of hostility, Iran and the US made the first tentative steps towards rapprochement after the election of self-declared moderate Hassan Rouhani as president last June.

Rouhani called his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama shortly after he took office, a move followed by a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

An interim deal struck last November led the U.S. and its partners to release $7 billion from frozen funds in return for a slowdown in Iran’s controversial uranium enrichment.

But a long-term accord, ahead of a July 20 deadline, remains a long way off, experts say.

Cyrus Nasseri, a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team when it was led by Rouhani between 2003 and 2005, told AFP the US role as “the main interlocutor” explained the need for direct talks, and said Washington had to drop its “stubbornly recalcitrant” outlook.

“It’s all a matter of whether the US will be prepared to take the next step to accept a reasonable solution which will be win-win for both,” with Iran allowed to maintain a uranium enrichment program, he said. “The U.S. has to bite the bullet after 10 years of wrongful accusations. It has to accept Iran will at the end of day, no matter how the settlement is made, have peaceful nuclear fuel production.”

AFP Photo/Atta Kenare

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