No nuclear deal yet as issues still remain, officials say

Tehran insists nothing finalized as world powers scramble to wrap up negotiations by the end-of-month deadline

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right), waits for the start of a meeting with a US delegation to multilateral nuclear talks at a hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 26, 2015. (photo credit: AP/Brendan Smialowski)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right), waits for the start of a meeting with a US delegation to multilateral nuclear talks at a hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 26, 2015. (photo credit: AP/Brendan Smialowski)

Iranian officials said issues still remained to be resolved in high-stakes nuclear talks Sunday night, rebuffing reports that a tentative agreement had been reached as the sides raced to come together before a Tuesday deadline.

A senior Iranian negotiator told AFP there was no agreement yet with global powers on Iran’s nuclear program, saying outstanding issues had still to be dealt with.

“No deal has been reached, and the remaining issues have to be resolved,” the Iranian official said.

Several Western diplomats had told AFP there was tentative agreement on some key parts of the emerging deal, but warned it was far from concluded.

One Western diplomat said Iran had “more or less” agreed to slash the number of its centrifuge machines by more than two-thirds and to ship abroad most of its stockpile of nuclear material.

A senior Iranian negotiator denied any such thing, saying any such claims were aimed at “disturbing” the talks.

An American official in Lausanne also denied the claim, Israel Radio reported.

Iran is considering demands for further cuts to its uranium enrichment program but is pushing back on how long it must limit technology it could use to make atomic arms, Western officials involved in the nuclear talks said Sunday.

Tuesday is the deadline for a preliminary agreement meant to set the stage for a further round of negotiations toward a comprehensive deal in June. The goal is a long-term curb on Iran’s nuclear activities. In return, Tehran would gain relief from the burden of global economic penalties.

In Lausanne, US Secretary of State John Kerry canceled plans to leave for an event in Boston on Monday in order to keep negotiating, the State Department said.

“It’s going all right. We’re working,” Kerry said Sunday during a break from talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a luxury hotel in the Swiss town.

His French and German counterparts, Laurent Fabius and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, also scrapped plans to go to Kazakhstan, diplomats said.

Steinmeier said Saturday talks were in the “endgame.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived on Sunday morning. Russian and British top diplomats Sergey Lavrov and Philip Hammond were expected later, completing the line-up of foreign ministers.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it was up to Iran to make the deal happen.

By accepting the restrictions, the Iranians would “live up to their rhetoric that they are not trying to acquire a nuclear weapon,” he said in Washington on ABC’s “This Week.”

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu renewed strong criticism of what he brands a bad deal.

He is at the forefront of accusations that Iran helped the recent Shiite rebel advance in Yemen, and Netanyahu linked Iran’s alleged proxy grab for influence in the Middle East with what he sees as victory by Tehran at the negotiations in the Swiss city of Lausanne.

“The Iran-Lausanne-Yemen axis is very dangerous for humanity and must be stopped,” he said.

US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, heading a delegation of American senators visiting Israel, said the lawmakers supported legislation to require Congress to approve any agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, or to increase penalties against Iran if no deal is reached.

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.

“The dangerous accord which is being negotiated in Lausanne confirms our concerns and even worse,” Netanyahu said in remarks broadcast on public radio.

“I just don’t understand why we would sign an agreement with a group of people who, in my opinion, have no intention of keeping their word,” House Speaker John Boehner, due to travel to Israel this week, told CNN.

The officials in Lausanne said the sides were advancing on limits to aspects of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, which can be used to make the core of a nuclear warhead.

Over the past weeks, Iran has moved from demanding that it be allowed to keep nearly 10,000 centrifuges enriching uranium, to agreeing to 6,000.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the talks, said Tehran now may be ready to accept even fewer.

Tehran is ready to ship to Russia all the enriched uranium it produces, the officials said, describing a change from previous demands that Iran be permitted to keep a small amount in stock.

One official cautioned that Iran previously had agreed to this, only to change its mind.

Also, Iran’s official IRNA news agency on Sunday cited an unidentified Iranian negotiator as denying such an agreement had been reached.

Uranium enrichment has been the chief concern in over more than a decade of international attempts to cap Iran’s nuclear programs.

Tehran says it wants to enrich only for energy, science, industry and medicine. But many countries fear Iran could use the technology to make weapons-grade uranium.

The United States and its allies want a deal that extends the time Iran would need to make a nuclear weapon from the present two months to three months to at least a year.

The officials said a main dispute involves the length of an agreement. Iran, they said, wants a total lifting of all caps on its activities after 10 years, while the US and others at the talks — Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — insist on progressive removal after a decade.

A senior US official characterized the issue as lack of agreement on what happens in years 11 to 15. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with State Department rules on briefing about the closed-door talks.

Limits on Iran’s research and development of centrifuges also were unresolved, the Western officials said.

Tehran has created a prototype centrifuge that it says enriches uranium 16 times faster than its present mainstay model. The US and its partners want to constrain research that would increase greatly the speed of making enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb, once limits on Iran’s programs are lifted.

One official said Russia opposed the US position that any UN penalties lifted in the course of a deal should be reimposed quickly if Tehran reneged on any commitments.

Both Western officials Iran was resisting attempts to make inspections and other ways of verification as intrusive as possible.

There was tentative agreement on turning a nearly-finished reactor into a model that gives off less plutonium waste than originally envisaged. Plutonium, like enriched uranium, is a path to nuclear weapons.

Iran and the US were discussing letting Iran run centrifuges at an underground bunker that has been used to enrich uranium. The machines would produce isotopes for peaceful applications, the officials said.

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