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EU official optimistic on Iran nuclear talks

TEHRAN — The European Union’s foreign policy chief expressed optimism Sunday that a permanent deal can be reached with world powers over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but she cautioned that success is far from certain.

‘‘It’s difficult; it’s challenging. There’s no guarantee we’ll succeed. But I think it’s very important, with the support of the people of Iran, for the work that is going on by the minister and his team, and with the support of the international community for my work, that we should aim to try and succeed,’’ said Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

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Ashton, who is visiting Iran for the first time, spoke in a joint news conference with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. She is meeting with top officials to discuss bilateral relations between Iran and the EU and issues of mutual concern, although the ongoing nuclear talks remain a priority.

In a separate development Sunday, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, advocated pursuing ‘‘new relations’’ with European countries that for years have been at odds, alongside the United States, with Tehran over Iran’s disputed nuclear program, the Associated Press reported.

‘‘Besides ongoing nuclear talks that should be driven ahead, there are other suitable fields in which both Iran and European Union can consider [to] push relations and cooperation ahead,’’ the president said in remarks quoted by his website. He suggested energy and transportation cooperation.

In November, negotiators from Iran and from a group of countries — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany — agreed to an initial deal that suspended some of Iran’s most sensitive enrichment activities in exchange for minor relief from sanctions that have battered Iran’s economy in recent years.

‘‘I’ve been engaged in discussions with Iran for nearly four years on these issues, and I think this interim agreement is really, really important, but not as important as the comprehensive agreement we are currently engaged in,’’ Ashton said.

The next round of nuclear talks is scheduled to begin March 17 in Vienna.

Negotiations, which stalled several times in recent years, have taken a more accelerated pace since August, when Rouhani took office as president.

Western negotiators often expressed frustration with Saeed Jalili, who was their Iranian counterpart during much of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Jalili was known for his deep resistance to making even limited concessions, and sanctions mounted on his watch.

But negotiations have been more fruitful since Rouhani took office, and the nuclear file was officially transferred from Iran’s national security team to its foreign ministry.

‘‘Iran is determined to reach an agreement. We have shown good faith, we have shown political will, and as far as verification of our side of the bargain is concerned, we have done our side,’’ Zarif said at the news conference.

Although Zarif said he thinks a permanent deal can be reached in a matter of months, both sides acknowledge the wide-ranging disagreements that must be addressed.

‘‘Clearly, we want to negotiate quickly, but the most important thing is that it’s a good agreement that everyone can live with,’’ said Michael Mann, Ashton’s spokesman.

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