World powers and Iran prepared to move past Tuesday’s deadline for a comprehensive nuclear agreement, with officials suggesting significant backtracking by Tehran’s negotiators that may need several more days of discussions to resolve, while adamantly denying Washington would “cave” to Iranian demands.
An unnamed US official termed allegations Washington was moving away from its commitments in the Lausanne agreement on April 2 as “absurd.”
“It’s really absurd,” the official told Reuters. “If we were going to cave, I could be home already and I would be a really happy person… we would have done that a long time ago.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry warned it was too soon to tell if a nuclear deal was possible as he awaited the return of Iran’s foreign minister from consultations in Tehran.
“We’re just working and it’s too early to make any judgements,” Kerry told reporters in Vienna as he met with Yukiya Amano, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed outrage Sunday at world powers for backtracking on terms they’d set for themselves during nuclear negotiations with Iran. “We see before us a clear diversion from the red lines set by the world powers recently and publicly,” the prime minister said.
Zarif was scheduled to return to the talks Tuesday, followed by the arrival of Russia’s top diplomat.
Monday was originally envisioned as the penultimate day of a 20-month process to assure the world Iran cannot produce nuclear weapons and provide the Iranian people a path out of years of international isolation. But officials said over the weekend they were nowhere near a final accord, and Zarif flew back to his capital for further consultations.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged that Tuesday’s deadline for a deal would be missed, saying “there are still some important unresolved issues.”
Several signs pointed toward Iranian intransigence and perhaps even backsliding on a framework it reached with world powers three months ago. At a briefing for some three dozen, mainly American, reporters, a senior US official repeated several times that the final package must be based on the April parameters — “period.” The official declined to elaborate because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy; reporters were updated on condition no individuals be quoted by name.
In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced he would soon travel to Vienna following a phone conversation between his boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and US President Barack Obama. Their talks Tuesday also will encompass efforts to fight Islamic State extremists, Lavrov said.
At the United Nations, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters that no new target date has been set for concluding the nuclear talks, which would set a decade of restrictions on Iran’s enrichment of uranium and other activity in exchange for tens of billions of dollars in relief from international economic sanctions.
Fabius, who was in Vienna over the weekend, repeated his country’s red lines for an agreement: stricter limits on Iranian research and development, capacity for UN nuclear monitors to verify the deal and the ability of world powers to snap sanctions back into place quickly if Iran cheats. In addition to France, Russia and the United States, other negotiating countries are Britain, China and Germany.
France’s conditions are essentially the same as America’s, whose diplomats have conducted the bulk of the negotiations with Iran since a series of secret talks between the countries two years ago and then the election of moderate-leaning President Hassan Rouhani. Iran insists its program is for energy, medical and research purposes, but much of the world suspects it of harboring nuclear weapons ambitions.
The US official said many of the trickiest issues involved in the negotiation remained unresolved. These have been described by others as the level of inspections Iran will grant International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, how fast the US and its partners would lift sanctions on Iran, and the exact restrictions on Iranian research of advance nuclear technology.
While the seven nations will continue working beyond their original June 30 deadline, the US official stressed that there is no talk of a long-term extension. The official added that it would not surprise the parties if talks drag on further past the deadline than they did for the framework pact. In that instance, negotiators wrapped up talks on April 2, two days after a March 30 deadline.
The current effort is more difficult. Now, diplomats must settle every element of an agreement.
As an example, US officials cited Iran’s planned heavy water reactor at Arak, which negotiators agreed in April would be redesigned so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium. But that still doesn’t resolve who will manage the program, certify the new design, monitor compliance and take care of the facility’s heavy water and spent fuel.
And other matters are more complicated and contentious at this point than the Arak plant, the officials said.