GENEVA — Marathon talks between major powers and Iran failed today to produce a deal to freeze its nuclear program, puncturing days of feverish anticipation and underscoring how hard it will be to forge a lasting solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Emerging from a last-ditch bargaining session that began Saturday but stretched past midnight, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said they had failed to overcome differences. They insisted they had made progress, however, and pledged to return to the table in 10 days to try again, albeit at a lower level.
"A lot of concrete progress has been made, but some differences remain," Ashton said at a news conference early today. She appeared alongside Zarif, who added, "I think it was natural that when we started dealing with the details, there would be differences."
In the end, though, it was not only divisions between Iran and the major powers that prevented a deal, but fissures within the negotiating group. Earlier in the day, France objected strenuously that a proposed deal would do too little to curb Iran's uranium enrichment or to stop the development of a nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium.
"The Geneva meeting allowed us to advance, but we were not able to conclude because there are still some questions to be addressed," the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told reporters.
Neither Ashton nor Zarif criticized France, saying that it had played a constructive role. But the disappointment was palpable, and the decision to hold the next meeting at the level of political director, not foreign minister, suggested that the two sides were less confident of their ability to bridge the gaps in the next round.
For all that, Zarif tried to put a brave face on the three days of talks, saying that the atmosphere had been good, even if the parties disagreed on the details of a potential agreement.
"What I was looking for was the political determination, willingness and good faith in order to end this," he said. "I think we're all on the same wavelength and that's important."
Iranian officials had promoted the possibility of a deal for days, generating an expectant atmosphere that swelled when Secretary of State John Kerry cut short a tour of the Middle East on Friday to join the talks.
"There's no question in my mind that we are closer now, as we leave Geneva, than when we came," Kerry said.