US and Iran said to have played chicken with deal deadline
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US and Iran said to have played chicken with deal deadline

Obama reportedly hoped to pressure Tehran by showing willingness to step away from the table and leave sanctions in place

From left: British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Senior Director at the National Security Council Robert Malley and US Secretary of State John Kerry stand on the terrace of the Beau-Rivage Palace hotel while taking a break during an extended round of talks on April 1, 2015 in Lausanne (photo credit: AFP/ FABRICE COFFRINI)
From left: British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Senior Director at the National Security Council Robert Malley and US Secretary of State John Kerry stand on the terrace of the Beau-Rivage Palace hotel while taking a break during an extended round of talks on April 1, 2015 in Lausanne (photo credit: AFP/ FABRICE COFFRINI)

US negotiators were instructed by President Barack Obama to ignore Tuesday’s midnight deadline for reaching a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, in order to indicate to Tehran that the US was prepared to leave all sanctions in place and walk away from the table if an agreement was not achieved, The New York Times reported Thursday.

Obama hoped his initiative would pressure Tehran to accept US positions on its nuclear program, leading to a change in the dynamic at the negotiations taking place in the Swiss resort town of Lausanne, the report said.

During a conversation with the president Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry, who is representing the US in the talks, stated that it would be impossible to reach a deal by the designated deadline, the report said. “They were turning our own deadline against us to see if we would give ground,” a senior US official was quoted as saying of the Iranian delegation to the talks.

Rollercoaster talks with Iran stretched deep into the early hours of Thursday, more than a day after they were set to expire, with Iran’s foreign minister urging world powers to “seize the moment” to clinch a groundbreaking deal.

“We are a few meters… from the finish line, but we are well aware that the final meters are the hardest,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters, as he arrived back in Switzerland to rejoin the negotiations.

The stakes were very high, he said, adding that at issue was the question of nonproliferation, and “Iran’s reintegration into the international community.”

Fabius was rejoining Kerry and their counterparts from Germany and Britain, as well as political directors from Russia and China.

A US official confirmed Kerry held four hours of late-night talks with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and EU deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid, adding to days of already bruising negotiations.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif talks to members of the media while walking through a courtyard at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel during an extended round of talks April 1, 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland (photo credit: AFP /BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/POOL)
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif talks to members of the media while walking through a courtyard at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel during an extended round of talks April 1, 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland (photo credit: AFP /BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/POOL)

In back-to-back talks, the top US diplomat then went straight into a meeting with Fabius and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, before just a few minutes later resuming negotiations with Zarif and Schmid.

“Iran has shown its readiness to engage with dignity and it’s time for our negotiating partners to seize the moment,” Zarif told reporters earlier.

Tehran wants “an entente” with the world, but it “will not accept submitting to force and excessive demands,” Zarif said.

After 18 months of intense negotiations, it remained unclear if the six world powers and Iran will pin down the main contours of a deal to put a nuclear bomb out of Iran’s reach.

The aim is to turn this into a comprehensive accord backed by specific technical commitments by June 30 when an interim deal struck in November 2013 — which saw Iran freeze certain nuclear activities in return for minor sanctions relief — expires.

Success would end a 12-year-old standoff. Failure may set the United States and Israel on a road to military action to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive.

The White House said the talks were still “productive” and progress was being made.

“But if we are in a situation where we sense that the talks have stalled then yes, the United States and the international community is prepared to walk away,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Tuesday.

Despite missing Tuesday’s midnight deadline, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had raised hopes of “an agreement in principle on all key aspects of the final settlement” before leaving on Wednesday.

Iran’s chief negotiator Abbas Araqchi had also appeared hopeful, saying he believed “that at the end of the day we will be able to come to a conclusion and a resolution for all issues.”

He said there were two main sticking points — a mechanism for lifting crippling sanctions against the Islamic republic, and the country’s research and development of new nuclear machinery.

Global powers want Iran to scale down its nuclear program to extend the “breakout” time needed to assemble enough nuclear material to make a bomb.

Iran denies wanting the bomb and its negotiators are under strict orders from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to refuse any curtailing of its program without sanctions relief.

Global powers have always refused an immediate lifting of all sanctions, preferring instead a phased suspension to enable them to be put back in place if Iran violates the deal.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, center right, European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, center left, and other officials from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States wait for the start of a meeting on Iran's nuclear program at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland Tuesday, March 31, 2015. (photo credit: AP/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, center right, European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, center left, and other officials from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States wait for the start of a meeting on Iran’s nuclear program at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland Tuesday, March 31, 2015. (photo credit: AP/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

If the outlines under negotiation fall short of firm commitments by Iran, Obama could find it hard to fend off attempts by his Republican opponents to pass fresh sanctions on Tehran.

Iran’s negotiators are also under pressure from domestic hardliners not to give too much away — while also delivering on President Hassan Rouhani’s promise to win the lifting of sanctions.

US Republicans fear that Iran will still be able to get the bomb — a concern shared by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, in his fourth broadside in as many days, warned on Wednesday against a bad deal that would “endanger Israel, and the Middle East and the peace of the world.”

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