VIENNA, Austria — US Secretary of State John Kerry called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Saturday evening and updated him on the ongoing negotiations in Vienna for a deal with Iran on its contested nuclear program.
Israel has consistently pushed for negotiators to demand the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear facilities that are capable of enriching uranium or plutonium that could be used to manufacture a nuclear weapon. Negotiators, by contrast, have considered allowing Iran to maintain low-grade enrichment.
Last month, the prime minister wrote a letter to nations negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program that Tehran’s recent calls to eliminate Israel show it is “unreformed,” and urged them not to sign a bad deal.
The prime minister said he urged the P5+1 ministers to regard statements from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as proof that the country had not reformed and still sought to destroy Israel. Khamenei had posted messages on his Twitter feed outlining a nine-point plan to “eliminate Israel.”
Iran and world powers still appeared a long way off from a nuclear deal late Saturday with Kerry and officials on both sides warning of major gaps two days before a deadline.
“We’re working hard,” Kerry said in Vienna, “and we hope we’re making careful progress, but we have big gaps, we still have some serious gaps, which we’re working to close.”
Kerry, who on Friday postponed a trip to Paris to remain in Vienna, met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Saturday afternoon, their fourth meeting in three days.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in the Austrian capital since Saturday midday, called this final weekend of talks, after months of negotiations, a “moment of truth”.
At stake is a historic deal in which Iran would curb its nuclear activities in exchange for broad relief from years of heavy international economic sanctions.
It could end a 12-year standoff that has even raised the prospect of Israeli military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
“The gap remains big… There now needs to be a political decision,” an Iranian source told AFP on condition of anonymity, putting the onus on the world powers to make concessions.
A European source in the talks said Saturday there has been “no significant progress” and “the chances of getting a deal are pretty reduced”.
“In order to get a deal the Iranians will have to budge in a rather substantial manner,” he said. Discussions about an extension could begin as early as Sunday, he said.
Many experts believe that the deadline may be extended, as happened with an earlier cut-off point of July 20, but officials insist that this is not on the table — yet.
However a senior US official said late Saturday that the aim remained getting a deal by Monday night “but we are discussing both internally and with our partners a range of options”.
The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany have been locked in talks with Iran since February to turn an interim accord reached a year ago into a lasting agreement by November 24.
Such a deal is aimed at easing fears that Tehran will develop nuclear weapons under the guise of its civilian activities.
The Islamic Republic hotly denies such an aim and insists its program is entirely peaceful.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and his French counterpart Laurent Fabius also joined the talks on Friday. Both have since left but were expected to return.
It was unclear when or whether Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a key player in the talks, might also arrive.
Earlier this week the head of the Russian delegation said Lavrov would come only if there was serious progress.
Lavrov said from Moscow on Friday that “all the elements are already on the table” for a deal and that all that was missing was “political will”.
Kerry on Friday updated Lavrov by phone. Kerry has also talked with the foreign ministers of several Gulf states and with those of Turkey and Canada, aides said.
Some areas under discussion appear provisionally settled in what would be a highly complex deal that would run for many years, even decades.
But two key issues remain: enrichment — a process that renders uranium suitable for peaceful uses but also, at high purities, for a weapon; and the pace of the lifting of sanctions.
Iran wants to massively ramp up the number of enrichment centrifuges — in order, it says, to make fuel for a fleet of future reactors — while the West wants them dramatically reduced.
“The remaining issues are tough and an agreement will require difficult political concessions from both sides,” Arms Control Association analyst Kelsey Davenport told AFP.
“Even though progress is slow, it is movement in the right direction. The parties may not get there by midnight on Monday, and a short extension may be required to make it over the final hurdles,” she said.
“But a good deal is more important than a deadline. Neither side can afford for talks to fail.”