US top diplomat John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Saturday launch a new high-stakes diplomatic drive to nail down an unprecedented nuclear deal as they hurtle towards a deadline just one month away.
US officials warned the weeks leading to June 30 would be intense, vowing to “keep the pressure on” to force the Iranians and everyone at the table to make the “tough decisions” needed to end a 12-year standoff and put a nuclear bomb beyond Iran’s reach.
Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet once again in the Swiss city of Geneva, as the United States with its partners — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — seek to finalize the complex pact.
After an interim accord hammered out in the Swiss city in November 2013, the United States and Iran are grappling with the final details of the ground-breaking agreement which would see Iran curtail its nuclear ambitions in return for a lifting of a web of international sanctions.
Time running out
The two diplomats are due to meet Saturday, but US officials did not rule out that the talks could stretch into a second day as the clock ticks down to the deadline.
After eight days of emotional, tough talks in Lausanne, the delegations unveiled on April 2 a framework to guide the last stretch of negotiations, with Iran agreeing to reign in and mothball large sections of its nuclear program.
But differences remain, while both the United States and Iran are under immense pressure from hardliners at home.
“We have a month left. I do think you’ll see it escalate at the political level,” a senior State Department official told reporters Friday, saying Kerry wanted to meet with Zarif to discuss the “really tough sticking issues.”
June is “going to be a pretty intense month both at the expert level and the secretary’s level, but I think we definitely still believe we can do it.”
Since the April 2 accord, technical experts have been meeting quietly behind the scenes to overcome the remaining issues. But many of the decisions now need to be made at a political level.
The US official said that the accord would have “multiple annexes” perhaps as many as three or more, which are already being drafted.
And despite rumblings from both Iranian and French officials that the talks may drag on beyond June 30, US officials insisted that was not on the table.
“We’ve been very clear that we are not contemplating an extension at this point. June 30th is a real date,” the State Department official said.
Several sticking points still remain, including the possible military dimensions of the Iranian program and the demands by the P5+1 group for rigorous inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites.
Iran also is demanding an accelerated lifting of US, EU and UN sanctions, while the P5+1 group wants a “snapback” mechanism to be put in place enabling the measures to be quickly reimposed if Tehran breaks the deal.
“Kerry will stress to Zarif the importance of granting access for inspections,” a western diplomat said.
“It’s one of the key legs of the stool. It’s not the only leg, but if it is not included then the stool will fall over.”
Yukiya Amano, the head of the UN’s atomic watchdog, told AFP this week that Iran had agreed to implementing the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that allows for snap inspections.
“When we find inconsistency or when we have doubts, we can request access to the undeclared location for example, and this could include military sites,” he said.
Lack of cooperation
But the UN atomic agency also said Friday that work on a key element — an assessment of allegations that Tehran worked on atomic arms — remains essentially stalled.
The report from the International Atomic Energy Agency also reiterated that more cooperation was needed by Iran for full clarity on its present activities. Without it, the IAEA said it cannot “conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”
Washington continues to insist that full lifting of sanctions depends on the IAEA’s ability to thoroughly probe the accusations and deliver an assessment on its findings.
The IAEA is focused on 12 alleged activities that point to Iranian attempts to make such weapons, including suspicions that Tehran worked on the development on a nuclear payload for missiles. The IAEA relaunched its probe two years ago by asking for information on less sensitive work related to nuclear arms allegedly carried out by Iran, with hopes of moving to larger issues later.
The report said that Tehran had recently shared some information sought by the agency but continues to hold back on the next stage of the IAEA probe.