Iran, powers ‘closer than ever’ to deal, top EU diplomat says

But Mogherini warns key sticking points remain and officials accuse Tehran of hardening stances as sides race toward agreement ahead of deadline

European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, center, arrives at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel March 28, 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland, during Iran nuclear talks. (photo credit: AFP/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI)
European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, center, arrives at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel March 28, 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland, during Iran nuclear talks. (photo credit: AFP/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI)

World powers are closer than ever to reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran, the top European diplomat said Saturday, as negotiators on both sides scrambled to overcome remaining impasses ahead of a Tuesday deadline.

Negotiators “have never been so close to a deal,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who arrived in a rainy Lausanne late Saturday, to join the ongoing crunch talks. However, she added there remained “critical points” to resolve.

Officials close to the talks accused the Iranian side of refusing to budge on key issues and even hardening their stances, bringing the talks to loggerheads Saturday, as marathon talks stretched into the night.

“The Iranians are being very tough on the most difficult issues,” a senior US official told CNN. “We are headed toward the deadline, so in some ways we expect this, but we really don’t know if we will get there.”

Another Western diplomat told the cable channel that Tehran’s refusal to compromise was threatening to sink the talks.

“They are not moving. It’s very difficult. It is not going well. We are really at a point where the Iranians need to decide whether they want this or not,” the official was quoted telling CNN, surmising that the hardened position may be the result of domestic pressures.

Iran and six world powers aim by Tuesday to agree the main contours of a deal reducing Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief and ending a more than decade-old standoff.

A full agreement is due by June 30.

“We’re moving forward,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters earlier after meeting separately with his German and French counterparts who flew into Lausanne, Switzerland on Saturday to join the negotiations over stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb in exchange for sanctions relief.

“I think we can in fact make the necessary progress to be able to resolve all the issues and start writing them down in a text that will become the final agreement once it’s done,” Zarif said.

France’s top diplomat Laurent Fabius, the most hawkish in the P5+1 group of countries negotiating with Iran, said he wanted a “robust deal” with close oversight to ensure no violations.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the talks had entered their “endgame” but also warned this would also be the hardest stage.

Russia’s chief negotiator, Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency as saying the chances of a deal were “more than 50/50.”

The powers want Iran to shrink its nuclear programme and impose unprecedented inspections in order to make any covert dash to a bomb all but impossible.

However, officials in Jerusalem have lobbied vociferously against the emerging deal, warning that it could give Iran carte blanche to pursue a nuclear weapon.

An Israeli official described the terms of the looming agreement as “incomprehensibly” bad and rejected the Obama administration’s contention that it would keep the regime a year away from accumulating enough fissile material for a bomb, The Times of Israel reported Friday.

But the sides have continued to push ahead, with officials on both sides describing serious progress.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Chinese counterpart Wang Yi were reportedly due to join the talks on Sunday. Britain’s Philip Hammond was on stand-by.

“It was important that ministers began to arrive… We expect the pace to intensify,” a senior US official said.

“The brinksmanship in these negotiations will no doubt continue until the eleventh hour,” said Ali Vaez, an expert at the International Crisis Group.

The Iranians “like to negotiate on the edge of a precipice. They’re very good at it,” a Western diplomat said.

The deal the negotiators are trying to put together is highly complex and two deadlines last year to turn an interim accord reached in November 2013 were missed.

“Everything is linked. If all the technical issues are resolved and the questions tied to the sanctions are not, then there is no deal,” said Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi.

Late Saturday he went into a third meeting of the day with US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz working out the technical nuts and bolts of how a deal might work, Salehi’s deputy said.

The sequence of sanctions relief and Iran’s development of faster machines called centrifuges to make nuclear fuel — but which can also produce the core of a bomb — are proving particularly thorny.

The UN has imposed several rounds of sanctions since 2006 aimed at stopping Iran from expanding its nuclear and missile programmes while EU and US sanctions since 2010 have targeted its oil exports and financial system.

Iran wants the sanctions lifted immediately but global powers insist on a gradual phasing out of sanctions over many years to ensure Iran sticks to its commitments. The issue of UN sanctions is proving particularly thorny.

It remains unclear what form any deal to emerge from the Lausanne talks would take.

Kerry is under pressure to return from Lausanne with something concrete to head off a push by Republican lawmakers to introduce yet more sanctions, potentially torpedoing the whole negotiating process.

There are also wider issues at play.

Russia’s Ryabkov said US-supported airstrikes by Iran’s foe Saudi Arabia on Iran-backed rebels in Yemen was “having an impact on the atmosphere” in Lausanne.

“We hope that the situation in Yemen will not bring about a change in the position of certain participants,” he said.

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