Iran and the US raced against the clock Sunday to close in on a nuclear deal, with American Secretary of State John Kerry saying it was “time to get it done” after 18 months of intense negotiations.
“If (Iran’s nuclear program is) peaceful, let’s get it done. And my hope is that in the next days, that will be possible,” Kerry told CBS television in Egypt on Saturday.
On Sunday he arrived in Geneva, Switzerland, bound for Lausanne to attend evening talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the State Department said.
Iranian First Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri said that an agreement between world powers and Iran would be possible if Washington doesn’t bow to pressure from the Zionist lobby, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
“At present, settlement of issues needs political will,” Jahangiri said. “There are still differences over the method of removing the sanctions and we think that if the Americans refrain from being influenced and pressured by the Zionists, certain countries and radicals, all grounds will be prepared for a comprehensive and complete agreement and we have almost arrived at that point.”
Jahangiri went on to claim that some Arab states, along with Israel and some people in the US, don’t want the nuclear talks to bear fruit but, nonetheless, progress was being made especially on technical matters.
“At present, we think that we have reached very good points in the negotiations and we can say we have attained good agreements in most, if not all, technical areas,” Jahangiri said.
Washington wants Iran to dramatically scale down its nuclear program in order to make it much more difficult to develop atomic weapons.
The Islamic Republic, reeling from sanctions, denies wanting nuclear weapons, saying its atomic program is for purely peaceful purposes. It wants to expand its activities.
Resistance to the mooted deal is growing in Washington, with opposition Republicans complaining that it will not do enough to prevent Iran getting the bomb.
The target is for Iran and six world powers — the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — to agree to the outline of a deal by March 31 and to fine-tune the details by July 1.
The nuclear standoff has lasted more than a decade, but the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani resulted in a minor thaw and the past 18 months have seen an unprecedented diplomatic effort.
Under a landmark November 2013 interim deal, Tehran stopped expanding its activities in return for minor sanctions relief.
Since then the parties have been pushing for a lasting accord.
But to the alarm of Israel, US Republicans and Washington’s Gulf allies, the US looks to have abandoned insisting that Iran dismantle all nuclear activities.
Instead it appears prepared to tolerate a small program under tight controls and potentially shipping abroad Iran’s nuclear material, possibly to Russia.
In theory this still leaves Iran with the possibility, however small, of getting to the bomb, critics say.
Last week 47 Republicans took the explosive step of writing an open letter to Iran’s leaders.
They warned that any nuclear deal could be modified by Congress or revoked “with the stroke of a pen” by the person who succeeds President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
It followed a barnstorming address to US lawmakers on a Republican invitation by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who faces a battle to be reelected Tuesday — against a deal.
The letter provoked a storm in Washington with Obama saying he was “embarrassed” for the signatories, while Zarif said it “told us that we cannot trust the United States.”
The Obama administration has been trying to dissuade lawmakers from passing a law, called Corker-Menendez, that would force the president to submit any Iran deal to Congress for approval.
The Republicans are trying to assemble a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress to pass the measure and override an Obama veto.
“Apparently the administration is on the cusp of entering into a very bad deal with one of the worst regimes in the world that would allow them to continue to have their nuclear infrastructure,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Sunday told CNN.
“We’re alarmed about it.”
‘We need clarity’
Some progress has been made towards a deal but the two sides remain far apart on several key issues.
These include the future size of Iran’s uranium enrichment capacities, which can make nuclear fuel but also the core of a bomb; the pace at which sanctions would be lifted; and the accord’s duration.
“We need clarity on the way in which sanctions will be lifted and what the guarantees will be for applying the deal,” Zarif told state television Sunday from Lausanne.
Zarif was due in Brussels on Monday to meet his British, German, French and EU counterparts but will return to Lausanne.
Senior negotiator Abbas Araqchi said political directors from all six powers will be present from Tuesday.
Two deadlines, in July and November, passed without an agreement but in view of the controversy in Washington — and pressure in Iran on Rouhani to deliver — extending yet again will be very tough.
“Absent a tangible achievement by the end of this month, the process could succumb to outside pressures,” International Crisis Group analyst Ali Vaez told AFP.
The White House said Sunday meanwhile that any deal would need approval from the UN Security Council.