From left: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna, Austria, Nov. 23, 2014.
Iran and six world powers appear likely to miss a midnight Monday deadline on reaching a nuclear deal and will reconvene next month, Western diplomats said.
"Given progress made this weekend, talks headed to likely extension with experts and negotiating teams reconvening in December at a yet to be determined location," a diplomat said, adding, “we will meet again before the new year.”
Details about the adjournment and resumption of negotiations were still being worked out, though the source said on condition of anonymity that Iran could not expect any new sanctions relief for the time being. Possible venues for talks in December include Vienna and Oman, the source said, though nothing had been decided.
Positives of reaching a deal
The talks in Vienna among the foreign ministers for Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus German, the so-called P5+1, aim for a deal that could transform the Middle East.
A deal could open the door to ending economic sanctions on Iran and start to bring a nation of 76 million people in from the cold after decades of hostility with the West. It would also represent a much-needed success for both U.S. President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani.
A deal could begin a process in which the "relationship not just between Iran and us, but the relationship between Iran and the world, and the region, begins to change," Obama said in an ABC News interview Sunday.
The cost of failure to reach a deal could be high. Iran's regional foes Israel and Saudi Arabia are watching the Vienna talks nervously. Both fear a weak deal that fails to curtail Tehran's nuclear ambitions, while a collapse of the negotiations would encourage Iran to become a threshold nuclear weapon state, something Israel has said it would never allow.
Appearing on the same Sunday news show as Obama, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cautioned "a bad deal would enable Iran to remain with thousands of centrifuges which it could use to enrich uranium which is what you need for a nuclear bomb. It could do so in a very short time.”
But a last-ditch diplomatic blitz in Vienna in recent days involving U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers appeared to have failed to bridge the remaining major differences.
As a result, Iranian and U.S. officials said late Sunday they had started talking about plan B - the option of putting more time on the diplomatic clock.
This came after Kerry met his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif for the seventh time since Thursday but again apparently failed to break the deadlock.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in the Austrian capital early Monday, completing the line-up of all foreign ministers from the six powers.
Waiting for results
(cartoon by Ali Jahanshahi, Shargh daily)
A European official said the possibility of securing a final agreement "seems physically impossible,” echoing comments on Sunday by Iranian officials.
However, Iran's official IRNA news agency on Monday quoted a source close to the Iranian negotiating team as saying they were still focused on reaching an agreement.
Officials report “significant gaps” on two crucial points: uranium enrichment and sanctions relief.
One of the key sticking points still appears to be how much capacity Iran will have to enrich uranium, a process that can create fuel for a nuclear weapon. There are also reportedly still gaps on the pace and extent of sanctions relief, an inspections regime to verify compliance and demands that Iran disclose details of its past, secret nuclear weapons program.
“We're all focused on trying to get to a deal, but I wouldn't want to give any false hopes here, we're still quite a long way apart and there are some very tough and complex issues to deal with,” British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond said late Sunday.
Iran said it now has no interest in having nuclear weapons, and only wants a nuclear enrichment program for energy and medicine.
Iranian-American activist and author Trita Parsi said both sides need to recognize that they have to give away more than they would like.
“If this deal is going to work, if this deal is going to be durable, both sides need to give concessions, and those concessions probably have to be painful. If the expectation is that either side can keep 80 percent and only give 20 percent, even if they could get to a deal, that deal likely will not be durable,” Parsi said.
And experts said an extension won’t make it any easier to make those concessions.
There is even disagreement on how long an extension might be. Iranian sources have spoken of another year, while sources from the other side have hinted at no more than a few months.
And an extension also creates problems, with hardliners in Iran taking advantage of any rumored delay or concession, and in the United States, Republicans, who generally take a harder line on Iran, coming to power in the Senate.
Parsi noted that any agreement will eventually require the U.S. president to convince Congress to ease or end sanctions against Iran.
“Time is running out for the implementation as well because the likelihood that the next president of the United States will take on lifting sanctions in Congress is not particularly great,” Parsi said. “The one president the United States has that is more committed, more invested, in this is Barack Obama.”
Al Pessin contributed to this report from Vienna.
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