By Victor Beattie, VOA
Iranian FM Mohammad Javad Zarif with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Vienna
WASHINGTON- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting Thursday in Paris with the foreign ministers of France and Saudi Arabia to discuss the ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
Later in the day he travels to Vienna, where officials from Iran and a group that includes the U.S., Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany have been trying to end a year of talks with a comprehensive agreement.
Their deadline is Monday.
Throughout the process, officials from both sides have given varying degrees of hope and uncertainty about whether they will reach a deal that ensures Iran's nuclear program is peaceful, while giving Iran relief from international sanctions that have hurt its economy.
The negotiations were originally due to end in July, but with no agreement in place the two sides decided to give themselves another six months.
U.S. State Department press director Jeff Rathke said the U.S. remains focused on the Monday deadline and is not talking about another extension.
Kerry was in London Wednesday, where he met with Oman’s foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi, who has been acting as a go-between with Iran. After the talks, the U.S. Secretary of State stressed that this will be a critical week in the Iran nuclear negotiations.
"We hope that we can get there [reach a deal], but we can’t make any predictions, nor will we. It’s imperative obviously that Iran work with us in all possible efforts to prove to the world the program is peaceful," said Kerry.
Others, including British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, were less optimistic about meeting Monday's deadline.
In Washington, during testimony Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tony Blinken, President Obama’s nominee to be deputy Secretary of State, indicated that meeting the deadline appears unlikely.
"Right now, I think it’s going to be difficult to get where we want to go. It’s not impossible. It depends entirely on whether Iran is willing to take the steps it must take to convince us, to convince our partners that its program would be entirely for peaceful purposes. As we speak, we’re not there. The Secretary of State is prepared to engage directly and personally if we have enough to move this over the goal line, but it is literally a minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour thing," said Blinken.
Blinken sought to reassure lawmakers the U.S. will not take a bad deal.
"Any deal we achieve has to effectively cut off Iran’s pathways to a [nuclear] bomb. It has to deal with the Arak [nuclear reactor] facility and its ability to develop a weapon through a plutonium path. It has to deal with [the] Fordow [underground uranium enrichment plant], the buried facility where it was, before the interim agreement, producing 20 percent [uranium enrichment purity]. It has to deal with Natanz [primary enrichment facility], and an effort to accumulate a large number of centrifuges, and a large stockpile, and [to] be able to produce material for a bomb very quickly. And, it has to deal as effectively as possible with the potential for a covert program by having an unprecedented inspection and access regime. And then, we’ll also have to deal with the possible military dimensions of the program with missiles and with the sanctions piece that we talked about earlier," said Blinken.
Iran analyst Shahram Akbarzedeh of Australia’s Deakin University saod crippling international sanctions to pressure Tehran to be more transparent have hurt the Iranian economy, resulting in high inflation and scarcity.
"Medicines are hard to get. Society is suffering. By the same token, the Iranian regime as a whole has managed to weather the storm and found alternative ways of operating and maintaining its power. So, sanctions are damaging the economy, but it’s not weakening the hold of the government on the country,” said Akbarzedeh.
He also does not believe the Monday deadline for an agreement will be reached.
"The fact of the matter is that the conditions the United States is putting on Iranian authorities, that is a severe reduction of centrifuge bases in Iran is seen as completely unreasonable. And, there are many commentators close to the Supreme Leader in Iran who have indicated that this is just unacceptable. So, I think it’s quite unlikely that there will be an agreement by Monday," said Akbarzedeh.
Akbarzedeh said the most likely outcome is that Monday’s deadline will be extended, but that will make it hard to reach an agreement. He noted that any delay gives opponents of a deal in both the U.S. and Iran time to undermine it.
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