US striving to get Iranian nuclear deal by deadline

Negotiations hampered by disagreement over size of enrichment programme for Iran

US secretary of state John Kerry, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna this week for talks on curtailing Iran’s nuclear programme. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/EPA

US secretary of state John Kerry, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna this week for talks on curtailing Iran’s nuclear programme. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/EPA

 

The United States is still striving to complete a comprehensive agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear programme by the November 24th deadline, though “substantial work” remains to be done, a senior US state department official has said after high-level talks.

Secretary of state John Kerry and Catherine Ashton, the foreign policy chief for the European Union, met in Vienna for more than six hours on Wednesday with Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, in an effort to advance the lagging negotiations on an accord that would trade significant constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities in return for a lifting of onerous economic sanctions.

“We are only focused on one thing right now, and that is having a full agreement done by the 24th of November,” said the state department official, who could not be identified under the agency’s procedures for briefing reporters. “The discussions remain very intense, very focused, very concrete.”

Iran and six world powers agreed last November on a temporary deal that froze much of Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for modest sanctions relief. That interim understanding was intended to buy time so that a more fundamental and enduring accord to roll back Iran’s nuclear efforts could be reached.

But the negotiation of a comprehensive deal has been burdened by major disagreements over the size of the enrichment programme Iran would be permitted to have and how long the accord would last. With the two sides far apart, the interim agreement, which was supposed to lapse in July, was extended until November 24th. And some former officials say that yet another extension may be necessary so talks can continue.

‘Not realistic’

Gary Samore, a former senior national security council official, and president of an advocacy group called United Against Nuclear Iran, said there had been signs that the Iranians were open to such an extension. Even achieving that, however, could prove challenging. To make an extension more palatable to congressional critics who say the temporary freeze does not restrict Iran’s nuclear activities enough, the administration may need to negotiate additional controls on their scope. But Iran, in return, might demand more sanctions relief than Washington is willing to provide.

“I think the Iranians are indicating pretty clearly they would like an extension,” Samore said. “They do not want to go back to the status quo ante where we are pursuing a new round of sanctions against them, especially at a time when the oil market is weak. And of course, we would favour an extension because it keeps the nuclear program frozen.”

Still, Samore added, “I think the negotiation over the terms of an extension could be very, very difficult.”

Assessing the prospects of a breakthrough is difficult because US officials have declined to discuss the details of what has been agreed upon or even to list the major stumbling blocks. In a news conference in Paris on Tuesday before leaving for Vienna, Kerry acknowledged he could not predict whether a nuclear accord could be achieved. “I don’t believe it is out of reach,” he said then. “But we have some tough issues to resolve, and I am not going to prognosticate.”

Compromise

Sergei Lavrov

Kerry was scheduled to return to Washington yesterday, leaving the nuclear talks in the hands of the US negotiating team and its counterparts. But he is likely to return for another high-level effort before November 24th.

The senior state department official, however, said that it was important to respect that deadline since it required all sides to make the hard decisions that were needed to cement an agreement.

“We’ve been chipping away at some of the issues,” the official said. “Everybody has put ideas on the table to see if we can move the ball forward.”

He added, “We have and continue to make some progress, but there’s a substantial amount of work to be done.” – (New York Times service)