VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran said it would resist Western pressure to make what it considered to be excessive concessions in nuclear talks that started on Tuesday, highlighting obstacles that could prevent a historic deal being reached by a Nov. 24 deadline.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declined to make any predictions for what he called a "critical week", during which negotiators from Iran and six world powers will push to end a 12-year dispute over Iran's nuclear program and dispel fears of a new Middle East war.
After nearly a year of diplomacy, they aim to reach a comprehensive settlement at the talks in Vienna that would curb Iran's atomic activities in return for a phasing out of sanctions that have severely hurt its oil-dependent economy.
However, Iranian and Western officials have said next Monday's self-imposed deadline is unlikely to be met, and an extension is the most likely outcome. They say it is possible to agree the outline of a future accord, but it would take months to work out the details.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met former European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is coordinating the negotiations, over lunch in the Austrian capital on Tuesday.
"The talks with Ashton were good and reaching a deal depends on the political will of the other side," Iran's official IRNA news agency quoted Zarif as saying.
It was followed by other meetings, including one between all the seven states involved as well as bilateral U.S.-Iranian discussions, a senior U.S. official said.
"This is a very critical week," Kerry said on a visit to London. "It’s imperative, obviously, that Iran work with us in all possible efforts to prove to the world the (nuclear) program is peaceful."
His British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, expressed cautious optimism. "I believe a deal can be done," he said after meeting Kerry. But, "Iran needs to show more flexibility if we are to succeed."
The outcome of the negotiations could have far-reaching implications in the wider Middle East as well as in the United States and Iran, where hardliners are sceptical of a rapprochement.
The six states -- France, China, Russia, Germany, the United States and Britain -- want Iran to scale back its capacity to refine uranium so that it would take much longer to produce fissile material for a bomb if it wanted to.
Tehran says it is enriching uranium only to make fuel for nuclear power plants and that this is its sovereign right.
"We are here to find a solution that respects the Iranian nation's rights and removes the legitimate concerns of the international community," Zarif said after arriving in Vienna. He made clear that Iran would be "resisting excessive demands".
(Additional reporting by William James and Jonathan Allen in London; writing by Fredrik Dahl; editing by David Stamp, Giles Elgood, Janet McBride)
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranian authorities have arrested four people suspected of throwing acid on women, according to a report by the official IRNA news agency
A string of acid attacks against at least two women in the central city of Isfahan last week prompted a loud public outcry. According to Iranian law, the four suspects, if convicted, could face the death penalty
The IRNA report doesn't reveal the identities of the suspects or their possible motives. However, local speculation centers on the possibility that the attackers believed the targeted women weren't dressing modestly enough
Iranian women must cover themselves in public with an enveloping head-to-toe veil. But Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehei, a spokesman for the Iranian judiciary, told the semi-official Fars news agency Monday that the suspects, if convicted, should receive harsh sentences as a message to other potential vigilantes. "The perpetrators of such acts should be punished, but pre-emptive punishment so others do not dare to do such actions," he said
Ahmad Shouhani, an Iranian parliament member, told IRNA that any sort of vigilante enforcement of that legal dress-code would not be permitted. "Any improper veiling should be punished by law, not individually," Shouhani said
US-led warplanes pummelled jihadists attacking the Syrian town of Kobane Friday as the Pentagon said there was no imminent threat to Baghdad despite a wave of deadly bombings.
Six strikes hit Islamic State group positions close to the front line in the east of Kobane, taking advantage of new coordination with the town's Kurdish defenders, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In neighbouring Iraq, sandstorms hampered the US-led air campaign against the jihadists, but despite recent advances west of Baghdad, IS is not poised for an assault on the capital, the Pentagon said.
The dawn strikes in Kobane came after US Central Command said American warplanes struck 14 times around the town on Wednesday and Thursday, including "successful" raids on 19 IS-held buildings.
"There is coordination between the Kurdish forces and the Americans," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
"The Kurds are giving them the exact coordinates of where the fighting is."
On Friday, Kurdish fighters faced three attacks by IS militants in the east and near the centre, said the Britain-based Observatory, which has a wide network of sources inside Syria.
Previously, Kurdish commanders in Kobane had complained of a lack of coordination with US air commanders to ensure support for their fighters on the ground.
Mars' upper atmosphere has been gradually disappearing for millions of yearsNASA's latest probe, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), has just started sending back data from the upper atmosphere of Mars, analyzing it's makeup of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen, and how these molecules are changing over time in the planet's atmosphere
The results will teach us why Mars' atmosphere is so thin compared to Earth's and why what was once a planet that could have sustained life is now so cold, dry, and barren
MAVEN went into orbit around Mars on Sep. 21 and in its three weeks around the planet, the spacecraft has already given NASA researchers an unprecedented look at the Martian atmosphere. Our first taste of the results has just come back, NASA scientists announced at a press conference on Oct. 14
Today, Mars' atmosphere is pretty thin. But early on in the planet's life, scientists suspect that Mars had a thicker atmosphere, higher surface temperatures, and therefore could harbor liquid water and possibly life. But something happened starting about 3.7 billion years ago, that's left Mars with the atmosphere it has today
Why the Red Planet's atmosphere has whittled away to almost nothing is a mystery that the MAVEN team is trying to solve by looking at how water and carbon dioxide molecules disassociate into their individual hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon atomic components.
Some of these atoms escape the Martian atmosphere, and so by looking at their abundance in the lower and upper atmosphere — and how that changes with time — scientists can get a better idea of what's causing these elements to separate from their parent molecules and escape into space.Hydrogen
"This is the best picture [shown below] ever made of atomic hydrogen in the extended upper atmosphere of Mars," Mike Chaffin, MAVEN Remote Sensing Team member at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said during the NASA press conference. "It's an important measurement to make because the hydrogen we're looking at here comes from water lower down in the atmosphere."
This water has broken apart into its atomic components, hydrogen and oxygen, and once hydrogen reaches the upper atmosphere of Mars it escapes into space because it is extremely light and so is weakly bound by Mars' gravity. It's escape processes like these that remove water from Mars, Chaffin explained, and may have "dominated the history of Martian climate change."
The hydrogen slipping away from the planet is shown by the bright white band around the red circle, which marks the outline of Mars. The band is bright because the hydrogen atoms are reflecting the sunlight that is shining on the day-side half of Mars.
A Saudi court on Wednesday sentenced prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr to death after convicting the anti-government protest leader of "sedition", his brother and lawyer said.
The verdict risks further escalating tensions with Saudi Arabia's minority Shiite community.
Nimr, a driving force behind 2011 protests against Saudi Arabia's Sunni authorities in the Eastern Province, was also convicted of seeking "foreign meddling" in the country, a reference to Iran, his brother Mohammed al-Nimr wrote on Twitter.
The court also found Nimr guilty of "disobeying" the kingdom's rulers and taking up arms against security forces, his brother said.
Nimr had been on trial since March 2013.
Most of Saudi Arabia's estimated two million Shiites live in the east, where the vast majority of the wealthy kingdom's oil reserves lie, and many complain of marginalisation.
They began demonstrating in February 2011 after an outbreak of violence between Shiite pilgrims and religious police in the Muslim holy city of Medina in western Saudi Arabia.
Protests escalated after the kingdom's intervention in neighbouring Bahrain to support that Shiite-majority country's Sunni monarchy.
Tension increased in July 2012 when security forces wounded and arrested Nimr.
Clashes have now killed about 24 people, including at least four policemen.
Iran hit back Tuesday at demands from Saudi Arabia that Tehran withdraw its "occupying" forces from Syria and insisted no country was more committed to confronting jihadists in the region.
The two regional powers have been at odds over Syria since unrest broke out in 2011, but the unusually high-profile exchange threatens to undermine a recent diplomatic push to patch up their differences.
Responding to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal's comments that Iran was "part of the problem, not the solution" in Syria, Tehran rejected the claim.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran is the most important country in the region committed to the fight against terrorism," Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was quoted as saying on the website of state television.
"Iran has helped the governments of Iraq and Syria fight against terrorism within the framework of international law."
Iran supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with financial and military aid, while Saudi Arabia has backed armed rebels trying to overthrow him.
The threat to Iran and Saudi from Islamic State (IS) jihadists prompted them to try to improve relations this summer but the angry exchange of the past 24 hours on Syria laid bare their differences.
"We recommend that Saudi Arabia pay attention to the plots of the enemies of the region... and play a positive role," Amir-Abdollahian said, without elaborating.
Iran denies having fighters on the ground in Syria. Assad, however, is backed by fighters from Lebanon's pro-Iranian Shiite movement Hezbollah.
Iran has accused Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries of aiding the jihadists' initial rise in Syria.
However, Saudi and four other Arab nations are now taking part in or giving support to air strikes by the US-led coalition against IS militants in Syria.
The Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers met in New York before the UN General Assembly last month to agree on what was billed as "a new page in relations between the two countries."
The encounter was the first between the top diplomats since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani came to power in August 2013.
However, Prince Saud on Monday hit out at Tehran, saying that "in many conflicts, Iran is part of the problem, not the solution."
"In this case, we can say that Iranian forces in Syria are occupying forces," he said.
"If Iran wants to be part of the solution in Syria, it has to pull its forces from Syria. The same applies elsewhere, whether in Yemen or Iraq."
Iran is accused of backing Shiite rebels in Yemen who overran the capital Sanaa on September 21 and of supporting the Shiite-led government in Iraq.
Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted by Iran's Fars news agency after arriving in Vienna, where he was due to meet European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will join them on Wednesday.
Zarif's cautious optimism came a day after President Hassan Rouhani told Iranian television that a nuclear agreement was "certain" and that only "fine details" remained to be negotiated.
Talks between Iran and six powers - the United States, France, Germany, China, Russia and Britain - are due to conclude by a self-imposed Nov. 24 deadline with, diplomats hope, a deal to end a standoff that has lasted more than a decade.
Diplomats say major differences remain, especially over the future scope of Iran's enrichment of uranium, a process that can yield material either for civilian nuclear power stations - Tehran's stated goal - or for nuclear bombs, which Western powers have long suspected may be Tehran's underlying agenda.
Kerry said in Paris on Tuesday that he did not believe that reaching a lasting accord within six weeks was out of reach, although he noted that many issues remained to be resolved.
Asked about speculation that an extension will be needed beyond that deadline to nail down a permanent settlement with Iran, Kerry pointed out that he was headed for Vienna on Wednesday for three-way talks with Zarif and Ashton.
He dismissed doubters who spoke as if "they know more than I do" but insisted that "I'm not about to predict".
"I don’t believe it's out of reach," he said, but added, "We have some tough issues to resolve."
In a further sign of attempts to accelerate negotiations, Ashton's office said she and Zarif would meet with senior foreign ministry officials known as political directors of the six powers in the Austrian capital on Thursday, a day after the meeting between the top EU, U.S. and Iranian diplomats.
"The main thing for us now is that time is not being lost," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Tass news agency.
Israel has threatened military force against Iranian atomic sites if diplomacy fails to ensure Iran is deprived of the means of developing nuclear weapons through enrichment. Iran says Israel's presumed atomic arsenal is the main threat to peace.
SIX WEEKS TO DEADLINE
A Western diplomat said the aim of Thursday's meeting would be to take stock of the status of the negotiations.
Ashton, who heads the team negotiating with Iran, will "work as hard as she can" to try and get a good agreement by the deadline, her spokesman, Michael Mann, said. "That is extremely important in every way."
One of Iran's chief negotiators, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, last week raised the possibility that the talks could be extended. But a U.S. State Department official said Washington believed there was still time to reach a comprehensive solution by the target date.
Iran rejects Western allegations that it is seeking nuclear weapons capability, but has refused to halt uranium enrichment, and has been hit with U.S., EU and U.N. Security Council sanctions as a result.
"Although we do not expect a breakthrough in the trilateral negotiations (between Zarif, Ashton and Kerry) ... still this round could pave the way for a final agreement," Fars quoted Zarif as saying. "On the agenda is the volume of uranium enrichment and the timetable for lifting the sanctions."
Iran and the six powers last November reached an interim deal under which Tehran suspended its most sensitive nuclear activity in exchange for some easing of the sanctions.
(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, Louis Charbonneau in New York, John Irish and Matt Spetalnick in Paris, editing by Mark Heinrich)
ISIL beheads British hostage
Terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group mounted brutal offensives on both the Syrian battlefield and in their online propaganda war Friday, murdering a British hostage and attempting to storm a key border town.
In a video released by the group in response to US-led airstrikes against it, a masked ISIL terrorist beheads British driver Alan Henning and threatens a US captive, aid worker Peter Kassig, AFP reported.
The footage, almost identical to three previous execution films released by the group, inspired revulsion around the world and drew a stark warning from Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron.
"We will do all we can to hunt down these murderers and bring them to justice," he said, declaring that the apparent murder "shows just how barbaric and repulsive these terrorists are."
US President Barack Obama condemned the "brutal murder" and warned that the US-led coalition "will continue taking decisive action to degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIL.
The UN Security Council said the video serves as a "tragic reminder of the increasing dangers volunteer humanitarian personnel face every day in Syria."
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday tried to shift the spotlight away from the Islamic State militant group and back to Iran, warning the United Nations that a nuclear-armed Tehran would pose a far greater threat than "militant Islamists on pickup trucks."
Islamic State's seizure of large swaths of Syria and Iraq and its killings of civilians and soldiers have dominated discussions during five days of speeches at the United Nations General Assembly podium and on the sidelines.
Iran leader bats aside Obama phone call questions
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani batted aside questions Friday about why he and US President Barack Obama had not spoken on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
The two leaders spoke by phone at the end of Rouhani's visit to the world's largest diplomatic gathering last year, but both sides said no call or meeting had been scheduled this time.
"Is it written as a rule somewhere that two presidents must always communicate telephonically?" a smiling Rouhani quipped during a news conference in response to a second question on why Obama had not telephoned him.
"At one point it just so happened... It doesn't mean that every trip (when) we come here, our departure must culminate in a phone call."
Obama returned to Washington on Thursday after spending several days in New York drumming up international support for air strikes against jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
Iran, a close ally of Damascus, has criticized the Syria strikes.
Rouhani said telephone calls were "somewhat meaningless" in the bigger picture of striving towards closer Iranian-US relations in the future.
"Because of the sensitivity that still exists between the two countries, such action would only be fruitful," when done according to a precise plan with clear objectives, the Iranian leader said.
But he sounded a positive note, saying it was not written in stone that Iranian-US relations always had to be driven by conflict.
"One day this will change," he said. Both sides "must step by step lay a solid foundation on which to build a better future."