Ensconced for hours in a Vienna hotel room, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart tried Wednesday to resuscitate troubled talks about limiting Tehran’s nuclear program.
Iran and six world powers have less than six weeks, until November 24, to strike a comprehensive accord meant to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons under the cover of its civilian atomic program, in exchange for eased sanctions.
Ahead of his meeting in the Austrian capital with Mohammad Javad Zarif, also involving EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Kerry said there was still hard work to be done.
“I don’t believe it’s out of reach, but we have some tough issues to resolve,” Kerry told reporters in Paris Tuesday after meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Kerry refused to be drawn on whether — as floated by Lavrov, Iran’s president and many experts — Iran and the six powers might push back the target date, as they did earlier this year.
“We need to continue to have some serious discussions, which we will, and we’ll see where we are,” Kerry said.
Deadline ‘not sacred’
“We’re not talking about an extension at the moment,” a senior US State Department official echoed Wednesday. “There is still time to get this done… if everyone can make the decisions they need.”
But Lavrov said in Paris on Tuesday that the November deadline was not “sacred”, in the strongest suggestion yet from one of the P5+1 powers.
Zarif too appeared to indicate that more time might be needed in order to discuss what he called “serious and innovative” — but unspecified — “new methods”.
“It is possible that more time might be needed to discuss these solutions,” he told state television late Tuesday after talks with US and EU negotiators including Ashton.
Iran, reeling from sanctions, denies seeking to build the atomic bomb and says it wants to expand its nuclear program in order to generate electricity and help cancer patients.
But the six powers — the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany — are pressing Tehran to reduce its activities in order to make any dash to make a weapon all but impossible, offering sanctions relief in return.
Last November, the two sides agreed an interim deal and set a July 20 target to agree a lasting accord, but after drawn out talks they gave themselves four more months.
Progress appears to have been made on changing the design of a new reactor at Arak so that it produces less weapons-grade plutonium, as well as on enhanced UN inspections and on the fortified Fordo facility.
The main bone of contention however remains Iran’s enrichment capacity, a process rendering uranium suitable for power generation but also, at high purities, for a nuclear weapon.
Other thorny areas include the pace at which sanctions would be lifted, the timeframe that an accord would cover, and a stymied UN probe into past suspect “military dimensions” of Iran’s activities.
The talks underway in Vienna on Wednesday went on for four-and-a-half hours before a pause for dinner.
Time on the clock
The US official said that Washington had identified sanctions that could be eased in a first step in any deal but indicated that there remained disagreement on this with the Iranians.
“Sanctions is a challenging issue. The details of when, what, how,” the official said, noting “very significant gaps on core issues,” including enrichment.
Many analysts have begun to believe that the deadline might be extended again, maybe after smaller interim agreements are struck on Arak and Fordo.
“A fully-fledged agreement by November 24 no longer appears likely. What is still possible is a breakthrough that could justify adding more time to the diplomatic clock,” Ali Vaez from the International Crisis Group told AFP.
“Our will is that in 40 days the matter will be resolved. But if other things happen and we are not able to solve all the problems, the two camps will find a solution,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on state television on Monday.