US ‘sees path’ to Iran deal by Tuesday deadline

Official says significant headway has been made; UK warns of nuclear arms race if talks fail, while US reportedly fears Tehran would target troops in Iraq

US Secretary of State John Kerry walks into another negotiating meeting over Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne, March 18, 2015 (Photo credit: AFP/POOL/Brian Snyder)
US Secretary of State John Kerry walks into another negotiating meeting over Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne, March 18, 2015 (Photo credit: AFP/POOL/Brian Snyder)

Top US diplomat John Kerry arrived in Switzerland late Wednesday for down-to-the-wire Iran nuclear talks, with US officials cautious but saying a deal was in sight by March 31.

“We very much believe that we can get this done by the 31st. We see a path to do that,” a senior State Department official told reporters, cautioning however it was still possible that a political framework to rein in Iran’s nuclear program could elude them.

Kerry touched down in Geneva late Wednesday and was driving to the lake resort of Lausanne, where he was set to hold several days of make-or-break talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The top diplomats from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia would join if the US and Iran are close to an agreement.

The State Department official traveling with Kerry noted that significant gaps remained in certain areas, but said the last round of talks, also in Lausanne, produced more progress than many previous rounds when it ended last weekend.

The official added: “We can see a path forward here to get to an agreement, we can see what that path might look like… that doesn’t mean we’ll get there.”

Beyond Thursday there was “a blank slate” with all days reserved for further talks and an “incredibly fluid” schedule, the US official said.

“We made more progress in the last round (last week) than we have made the previous rounds, which often happens once you’re getting closer to a deadline.”

Britain’s foreign minister warned in comments released on Thursday that failure to secure a deal with Iran could mean a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

“I remain clear that no deal is better than a bad deal. But we should also be clear-eyed about the alternative,” Foreign Minister Philip Hammond said in a speech in London.

“No deal means no restrictions on enrichment, no restrictions on research and development, and no independent monitoring or verification. It means a fundamentally more unstable Middle East, with the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the region.”

Hammond said that a deal would require “difficult decisions” on all sides but urged for every effort to be made to reach an agreement. “So now is the time, with our key allies, to build on the recent momentum, to press Iran where differences remain, and to strain every sinew to get a deal over the finishing line,” Hammond said.

“The door to a nuclear deal is open, but Iran must now step through it.”

The website Politico reported Wednesday that US officials fear a collapse of talks could also have negative repercussions for American servicemen operating in Iraq. If negotiations fall through, an embittered Tehran may be inclined to direct Shiite militias fighting against Islamic State to attack US troops as well, the report said.

Shiite fighters in the region have cooperated with US forces against IS, but many are also being supported by Iran and feel loyalty to the Islamic Republic.

“The US military is very concerned that the Iranians will come after American personnel in Iraq,” former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack told Politico. “It’s clearly something that’s been on their mind for a while.”

The seven nations have set themselves a March 31 deadline for the outline of a final accord they hope to conclude by the end of June. Both President Barack Obama and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have spoken against what would be a third extension of the talks.

And opponents, among them wary American allies in the Middle East and hardliners in Iran and in Congress, stand ready to complicate the process if negotiators cannot reach a breakthrough in the next six days. American lawmakers have threatened new sanctions on Iran as well as the establishment of a process which would allow them to vote down any final accord.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in an NBC interview on March 4, 2015 (NBC screenshot)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in an NBC interview on March 4, 2015 (NBC screenshot)

The White House said Wednesday it was seeking concrete commitments from Iran in order to reach a nuclear deal that can be shown to the US Congress and public

“We certainly would want, and expect, that if a deal is completed, it will include tangible, specific commitments that have been made by the Iranians,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

His comments followed a New York Times report that Iran is resisting a formal “framework” agreement and preferred a more general statement of “understanding” followed by a final accord in June.

Earnest said the Iranians were making “certain commitments” in the negotiations on its nuclear program and said there would a “process” for hammering out the details of those commitment.

“But the president was clear that the kinds of commitments that we seek from the Iranians are the kinds of things that we would be able to show to members of Congress and show publicly, to share with our allies, including Israel, about what kinds of commitments Iran has made,” he said.

Iran’s atomic energy chief said progress has been made in the nuclear negotiations, the official IRNA news agency reported Wednesday.

Ali-Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, was also heading to Lausanne, Switzerland as part of a negotiating team led by Zarif. IRNA quoted Salehi as saying that Tehran is seeking a win-win agreement, while Zarif has stated that a full lifting of all sanctions is a red-line condition for any deal.

“We have had good negotiations and now have reached a stage that needs a serious decision and we hope that the other side can make the proper decision,” Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Takht-e Ravanchi said on Wednesday. “We hope to be able to obtain results. Of course this depends on the other side which should accept the realities.”

The United States and its partners are trying to get Iran to cut the number of centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium, material that can be used in warheads, and agree to other restrictions on what the Islamic Republic insists is a peaceful nuclear program.

Speaking Wednesday morning to US ambassadors, Kerry assailed opponents of a deal.

“What happens if, as our critics propose, we just walk away from a plan that the rest of the world were to deem to be reasonable?” Kerry asked. “Well, the talks would collapse. Iran would have the ability to go right back spinning its centrifuges and enriching to the degree they want… And the sanctions will not hold.”

Kerry said the whole point of years of US sanctions was to get Iran to agree to limits on its nuclear program. He said it was the Obama administration’s job to “provide an agreement that is as good as we said it will be; that will get the job done; that shuts off the four pathways to a nuclear weapon.”

The alternative to diplomacy could mean Iran is left to “just expand its program full-speed ahead,” Kerry said. “You know we can’t accept that. So where does that take you? Anybody standing up in opposition to this has an obligation to stand up and put a viable, realistic alternative on the table. And I have yet to see anybody do that.”

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