By Louis Charbonneau and John Irish
PRAGUE/PARIS (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers from the six powers negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program may travel to Vienna soon to join the talks, which have failed so far to produce a deal, diplomats said on Tuesday.
The possible arrival of the ministers ahead of a July 20 deadline for an agreement should not be seen as proof that negotiators from Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China are on the cusp of a deal, the diplomats cautioned.
"The ministers can help negotiate an extension of the negotiations, if that's deemed useful, and they could help generate momentum to get a deal by July 20, which remains our goal," a Western close to the talks diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"Of course, the ministers could also sign an agreement but we're far from signing anything at the moment," the diplomat added. "There are significant gaps in positions."
The goal of the negotiations is to reach a long-term agreement under which Iran would curb its nuclear program in exchange for the gradual lifting of international sanctions, which have hobbled Iran's oil-dependent economy.
A preliminary deal struck in Geneva between Iran and the six last November gave Tehran limited sanctions relief to buy time for negotiating a comprehensive agreement in exchange for suspending some of its most sensitive atomic work.
Ministers from the six powers came to Geneva twice during the two months of negotiations with Iran last year and secured a preliminary agreement on their second trip. But Western diplomats said expectations that the ministers would be able to secure a deal now in Vienna are low.
Iran rejects allegations from Western powers and their allies that it is pursuing the capability to produce atomic weapons under cover of a civilian nuclear energy program. It has refused to halt enrichment as demanded in numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions, resulting in crippling sanctions.
It was not clear when the ministers would come to the Austrian capital, if they decide to do so, though some diplomats suggested it could be as early as the end of this week. Others said a later date was more likely.
"We're still far from a deal," a Western diplomat said. "The deadline is July 20 and that's what we're working towards. If the ministers go I would envisage it being closer to then than in mid July."
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday Iran would need to significantly increase its uranium enrichment capacity over the long term, underlining a gap in positions between Tehran and world powers but also potentially signaling some flexibility in the short term. [ID:nL6N0PJ224]
Iran and the six have less than two weeks to bridge wide differences on the future scope of Iran's enrichment program and other issues if they are to meet a self-imposed July 20 deadline for a deal.
They resumed talks in Vienna last week and their negotiators continued meetings in Vienna on Tuesday, but there was no immediate sign of any substantive progress on the main sticking points, which include uranium enrichment, the length of any agreement and the speed at which sanctions would be lifted.
The preliminary agreement reached in Geneva in November included the possibility of extending the negotiations for up to six months. Western diplomats say that negotiating an extension could be complicated but may be necessary given the wide gaps in positions between Iran and the six powers.
(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna and Lesley Wroughton in Beijing; editing by Ralph Boulton)