Negotiators from Iran and six world powers agreed to extend high-stakes nuclear talks for seven days Tuesday, after failing to come to a deal by a June 30 deadline.
The move came hours before before a midnight deadline for a deal to end the 13-year standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions was set to expire after years of negotiations.
The preliminary measures have been prolonged to July 7 “to allow more time for negotiations to reach a long-term solution … on the Iran nuclear issue,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
Earlier in the day, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif joined US Secretary of State John Kerry for talks in Vienna which their Russian and German counterparts, Sergei Lavrov and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, were also set to join, according to sources.
The European Union also extended a freeze on sanctions targeting Iran by one week, EU officials said Tuesday, as tense talks on agreeing a nuclear deal continue in Vienna.
“To allow more time for the ongoing negotiations to reach a long term solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, the Council has prolonged until 7 July 2015 the suspension of EU restrictive measures,” a European Council statement said.
A framework deal on Iran’s nuclear program was drawn up in April in Lausanne, Switzerland, but turning that 505-word joint statement into a fully-fledged agreement has proved tough work.
This is the third time the EU sanctions freeze has been extended.
Diplomats said that a UN nuclear agency will confirm that Iran has met a key condition of a preliminary nuclear agreement, changing a substantial amount of enriched uranium into a form that is difficult to use for nuclear arms.
Uranium can be used to generate energy, or as the fissile core of a nuclear weapon, depending on its enrichment level. Under a preliminary deal reached in November 2013, Iran agreed to cap its stockpile of lower-enriched uranium at a little more than 7.6 tons and transform any remainder into a form that experts say would be difficult to reconvert for arms use.
Although amounts were permitted to fluctuate, Iran had to fully comply by Tuesday. And as of only a month ago, the U.N. nuclear agency reported its stockpile at more than 8 tons, leading to fears that it would not meet the target.
Iran’s compliance will be officially made public Wednesday in a new report by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the diplomats said. It will show that Tehran met the requirement to render harmless any additional uranium it has enriched over the last 20 months, thus taking its stockpile back to an acceptable level. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the still confidential report.
Talks in Austria’s capital restarted Tuesday after a one-day interruption, with Iran’s chief diplomat returning from Tehran and insisting he had a mandate to finalize a nuclear agreement. The promise came despite increased signs of backtracking by his country’s supreme leader and an acknowledgement by all sides that no pact would be reached by their self-imposed deadline.
The diplomacy has reached a “very sensitive stage” but progress is possible, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said. Asked by a reporter about his day of meetings at home, he said: “I already had a mandate to negotiate and I am here to get a final deal and I think we can.” He then continued discussions with Kerry.
The two men were then joined by their teams for a broader meeting, with nuclear experts US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Iran’s Ali Akbar Salehi, who played a key role in brokering the outlines of a breakthrough accord in April in Lausanne, also around the table.
Iran’s official news agency called Salehi’s participation an indication of Tehran’s desire to accelerate talks.
“The only agreement that the Iranian nation will accept is a just and balanced one [respecting] the national greatness and the rights of the Iranian people,” Zarif told Iranian media as he arrived back from a whirlwind one-day trip back to Tehran.
“All the officials have said they are ready for… a fair and rational trade-off,” Zarif said.
Zarif’s return to Tehran on Sunday night, after a weekend of intense negotiations with Kerry and other foreign ministers, had sparked speculation that he would return with clear guidance that would enable an accord to be sealed.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to give Zarif his blessing, tweeting in English on Tuesday: “I recognize our negotiators as trustworthy, committed, brave and faithful.”
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) June 30, 2015
Asked if he was encouraged by the restart of talks, Kerry said only, “We had a good conversation.” The secretary of state, hobbled by a broken leg he suffered a month ago, has kept a low public profile since arriving in Austria last week.
Tuesday had originally been envisioned as the culmination of a 20-month process to assure the world Iran cannot produce nuclear weapons and provide the Iranian people a path of out of years of international isolation. But officials said over the weekend they were nowhere near a final accord, and Zarif flew back to his capital for further consultations.
The US, France and Iran had said there is no new target date for a deal, but that another in a series of long-term extensions wasn’t being contemplated.