Senior US official: Iran wants to meet July 20 deadline

Senior US official: Iran wants to meet July 20 deadline

Deputy Secretary of State Burns likely to discuss Iraq with Iranian counterparts as talks open in Vienna

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

European Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton (left), and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right), before the closed-door nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria, on Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Ronald Zak)
European Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton (left), and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right), before the closed-door nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria, on Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Ronald Zak)

WASHINGTON — Iran is working toward reaching the July 20 target date for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with the P5+1 member states, a senior US administration official said Monday.

Drafting of the text of the comprehensive agreement with Iran will continue as the newest round of talks launches Monday in Vienna, and it is likely that on the sidelines the US and Iran will also discuss the deteriorating situation in Iraq.

“This week is a critical one for the comprehensive negotiations,” the senior administration official said Monday morning, adding that there is a “strong sense” of desire to “reach a good agreement.” The official acknowledged that even following bilateral meetings between the US and Iran last week, there are “still significant gaps and we don’t have illusions about how hard it will be to close those gaps.”

The official said that the final agreement can’t be reached “by going down a checklist of individual items, but by looking [at] how all of the pieces fit together,” but repeated the phrase often used by administration members that “we would rather have no deal than a bad deal.”

She added that “if Iran wants to head in the direction it says it does,” an agreement should be achievable.

“Iran said that it is not trying for a nuclear weapon and does not want a nuke weapons program and so it should not be a problem” to meet the terms demanded by the P5+1 states, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, she said.

The official was reluctant to discuss the possibility that any agreement might not be reached by the July 20th deadline. According to the Joint Plan of Action agreed upon in November, the talks may be extended by an additional six months if no agreement is reached.

“I think everyone in P5+1 agrees and Iran agrees that it is not in anybody’s interest to decide that an extension is warranted,” the official said. She noted that there are no automatic extensions to the talks after the July date, and any additional extension must be mutually agreed upon.

In an effort to reach the deadline, the pace of talks will increase in coming weeks. “I cannot imagine that between now and July 20 we will not be meeting every single day in one way or another,” the official said.

The talks, which open Monday, will be the fifth round of talks held at the political director level, although the senior administration official said that “work has been constant throughout the past five months,” with experts in daily contact by telephone, email and in-person meetings.

According to the US administration, all of the members of P5+1 have had lengthy bilateral meetings in recent months, capped off by the US-Iran two-day bilateral talks held last week in Geneva. While some of the other states held bilateral meetings in Tehran or had the Iranian delegations visit their capitals, the US and Iran met on neutral territory.

US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who was present at last week’s bilateral talks, will also attend the opening talks on Monday. Hours after Secretary of State John Kerry said the US may hold talks with Iran over the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the senior administration official told reporters that “it may be that on the margins of the P5+1 but completely unconnected to it there may be some conversation” between Burns and his Iranian counterparts about Iraq.

The senior administration official said that Burns and Jake Sullivan, the vice president’s national security adviser, attended last week’s bilaterals because “there may have been some questions by our Iranian interlocutors about the previous bilateral discussions.”

On Monday, Burns is likely to be involved in briefing Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the results of last week’s bilaterals, as Zarif did not attend the talks. The senior administration official who spoke with the media Monday morning said that European participation in last week’s talks – and likely in Monday’s trilateral discussion as well – was encouraged in an effort to increase transparency.

In the run-up to the final deadline next month, Burns and Sullivan are both likely to join Washington’s nuclear negotiations team in Vienna. “We want to do whatever we can do to get to a successful outcome,” the administration official added.

The official confirmed that drafting has already begun for the agreement, and that it is likely that drafting will continue in this round as well. Zarif, the official said, is a proponent of slowly drafting the agreement.

Still, the official noted that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and nobody will say what is agreed to until they have to. There will be greater and greater clarity – and we’ll see how they all come together.”

Although the official said that they “thought that they needed to be more realistic about what they needed to do” to get an agreement, they noted that talks have been “very direct [and] nobody has threatened to walk out of the room.”

The US team expects “very tense moments” as they get closer to the deadline.

On a lighter side, the official did note that “World Cup fever has presented itself in Vienna already,” with a number of negotiating states’ teams playing in the opening rounds.

Discussing sanctions relief, the official emphasized that “we have been clear that sanctions we are focused on here are nuclear related,” and that “we are very clear that the sanctions that are in place because of human rights concerns, state sponsored acts of terrorism and acts of terrorism in general will continue to stay on the books.”

“Until we resolve the nuclear issue there cannot be any fundamental change” to Washington’s relationship with Tehran, the official noted. Even after a deal is reached, they said, the US will continue to have concerns about acts of terror and human rights abuses.

“There is a long way to go,” the official concluded. “Will it have some impact? I certainly hope it does because it will mean that we have taken off the table a very profound concern that we have and the world has about Iran’s nuclear program.”

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