Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program headed for double overtime on Wednesday, beset by competing claims and recriminations after differences forced diplomats to abandon their March 31 deadline for the outline of a deal.
US Secretary of State John Kerry postponed his departure from the talks in the Swiss town of Lausanne for a second time and will remain until at least Thursday morning to continue negotiations, the State Department said.
On Thursday, the latest round of talks will hit the week-long mark with diplomats from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany scrambling to reach a framework accord with Iran.
“We continue to make progress but have not reached a political understanding,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said in announcing Kerry’s decision to extend the talks.
After meeting alone with Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif urged global powers Wednesday to “seize” the moment to reach what could be a historic deal to cut back Iran’s nuclear program.
“Iran has shown its readiness to engage with dignity and it’s time for our negotiating partners to seize the moment and use this opportunity which may not be repeated,” Zarif said.
Zarif added that the result of this round of talks “will not be more than a statement.”
A senior Western official pushed back on that, saying that nothing about a statement had been decided and that Iran’s negotiating partners would not accept a document that contained no details. The official was not authorized to speak to the negotiations by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The negotiators’ intention is to produce a joint statement outlining general political commitments to resolving concerns about the Iranians’ nuclear program in exchange for relief of economic sanctions against Iran. In addition, they are trying to fashion other documents that would lay out in more detail the steps they must take by June 30 to meet those goals.
“We are negotiating with six countries with different interests, different positions and relations with the Islamic Republic. Sometimes they have different points of view,” Zarif said.
Zarif said his country wanted “an entente with the world but it will not accept submitting to force and will not accept excessive demands.”
Iran denies wanting a nuclear 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 in order to be able to swiftly put them back into place if Iran violates the deal.
The stakes are high, with fears that failure may set the United States and Israel on a road to military action to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive.
“Our friends need to decide whether they want to be with Iran based on respect or whether they want to continue based on pressure,” Zarif said.
“They have tested the other one. It is high time to test this one.”
Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi named differences on sanctions relief as one dispute – but also suggested some softening of Tehran’s long-term insistence that all sanctions on his country be lifted immediately once a final deal takes effect.
He told Iranian TV that economic, financial, oil and bank sanctions imposed by the US, the European Union and others should be done away with as “the first step of the deal.” Alluding to separate UN sanctions he said a separate “framework” was needed for them.
The US and its negotiating partners want to crimp Iranian efforts to improve the performance of centrifuges that enrich uranium because advancing the technology could let Iran produce material that could be used to arm a nuclear weapon much more quickly than at present.
The additional documents the US wants would allow the sides to make the case that the next round of talks will not simply be a continuation of negotiations that have already been twice extended since an interim agreement between Iran, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany was concluded in 2013. President Barack Obama and other leaders, including Iran’s, have said they are not interested in a third extension.
But if the parties agree only to a broad framework that leaves key details unresolved, Obama can expect stiff opposition at home from members of Congress who want to move forward with new, stiffer Iran sanctions. Lawmakers had agreed to hold off on such a measure through March while the parties negotiated. The White House says new sanctions would scuttle further diplomatic efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear work and possibly lead Israel to act on threats to use military force to accomplish that goal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has campaigned tirelessly for months against the emerging agreement, said it would “ensure a bad deal that would endanger Israel, the Middle East and the peace of the world.”
“A better deal would significantly roll back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. A better deal would link the eventual lifting of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to a change in Iran’s behavior,” he said.