Foreign Ministers of 5+1 countries (United States, China, Britain, France, and Germany) at the negotiating table with Iran in Lausanne, Switzerland.
(photo by Islamic Republic News Agency)
LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- Negotiators from Iran and six world powers are in their final day of talks before a midnight deadline for a framework agreement to impose limits on Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Negotiations have intensified as the self-imposed deadline looms for the outline of a deal to end a 12-year standoff over Iranian activities that Western countries fear are aimed at developing nuclear weapons capability -- a charge Tehran denies.
The political framework agreement, if achieved, is to pave the way for a full deal by June 30.
The senior diplomats from the United States, China, Britain, France, and Germany met among themselves early on March 31 and then met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flew back to Moscow on March 30, but he announced on March 31 that he was returning to Lausanne and said the prospects for success are "not bad -- I would even say good."
"Chances are high," he added. "They are probably not absolute and there is never absolute certainty in anything."
"But these chances are quite realistic if none of the participants at the talks raise the stakes at the last moment in the hope of winning something extra at the end of the final act instead of seeking to maintain the balance of interests."
Other officials played down expectations for the talks, which diplomats said could run late and possibly continue past midnight, into April 1.
Officials said they were hoping to agree on some kind of declaration but that any details agreed might not be made public at this point, and that it was also possible there would be no agreement.
"We are preparing for both scenarios," a Western diplomat said.
One obstacle to achieving an agreement is reportedly Iran's refusal to further cut its uranium enrichment program, which Western powers are insisting upon to delay the potential for Iran to produce weapons-grade material.
Another issue holding up progress toward reaching a deal is the timeframe for lifting sanctions that are damaging Iran's economy.
The six powers want more than a 10-year suspension of Iran's most sensitive nuclear work.
Iran, which says its nuclear program is solely for power generation and other peaceful purposes, wants a swift end to sanctions in exchange for temporary limits on its atomic activities.
"There will be no agreement if the sanctions issue cannot be resolved," Majid Takhteravanchi, an Iranian negotiator, told Iran's Fars news agency.
Iran is also demanding the right to unfettered research and development into advanced nuclear centrifuges after the expiration of a 10-year period.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said late on March 30, "We still need a lot of movement on all sides, also on the side of Iran."
"There still remain some difficult issues," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN the same day.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told Iranian state television that talks were unlikely to reach any conclusion until the deadline of midnight on March 31 "or the day after."
Western officials say that Tehran has recently backed away from proposals it previously indicated it could accept, such as on shipping enriched uranium stocks to Russia.
But a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said there was never a definite agreement on shipping uranium stocks abroad, and that there were other ways to limit Iran's access to uranium, which can be used as nuclear fuel or to make weapons, depending on the level of enrichment.
Officials close to the talks said stockpiled uranium could be diluted.
Iran Nuclear Talks Timeline: How We Got Here
The talks have already been extended twice since an interim agreement was reached in November 2013.
Most countries involved in the negotiations have already signaled they do not wish to continue the talks after the self-imposed deadline but they have also said the interim agreement would remain in place until July, suggesting talks could continue.
Any extension would be likely face criticism from Israel and U.S. President Barack Obama's Republican opponents, who say they fear that Western states are too eager to compromise with Tehran.
Critics of Iran have long contended that Tehran has been playing for time while improving its nuclear capabilities in defiance of existing UN sanctions.
The U.S. Congress has warned it will consider imposing new U.S. sanctions on Iran if there is no agreement this week-- though Obama has theatened to veto such a move.
Missing the deadline could also weaken the hand of Iranian moderates in the face of hard-line conservatives.
"Our feeling is that this is the moment," Reuters news agency quoted a Western diplomat close to the talks as saying. "Either we get a deal or not. Because if we don't come out of this period with some type of framework, it's going to be difficult to explain why we would get one on June 30."
"With Congress, the Iranian hawks and a Middle East situation where nobody's exactly getting on, I'm not convinced we'll get a second chance if this fails," the Western diplomat said on condition of anomymity.
Officials have also cautioned that success in reaching a framework agreement would not guarantee that the six powers and Iran can iron out all the technical details and forge a comprehensive deal by the self-imposed June 30 deadline.
Based on reporting by Hannah Kaviani of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Reuters, AP, and AFP
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