U.S. President Barack Obama raised the possibility of extending talks with Iran over its disputed nuclear program, suggesting that a comprehensive accord won’t be reached before an interim deal expires July 20.
“There are still some significant gaps between the international community and Iran, and we have more work to do,” Obama told reporters at the White House yesterday.
Those gaps include the key issue of Iran’s uranium-enrichment capability, according to U.S. and Iranian officials. Iran wants more clarity over how sanctions will be lifted. A failure to reach an agreement would again put the U.S. and Iran on a collision course over the Islamic republic’s potential to build nuclear weapons.
“Over the next few days, we’ll continue consulting with Congress and our team will continue discussions with Iran and our partners as we determine whether additional time is necessary to extend our negotiations,” Obama said.
Robert Einhorn, formerly the State Department’s nuclear nonproliferation adviser and part of the U.S. negotiating team, said that in his view “clearly” the U.S., its partners and Iran have decided to pursue an extension.
“But before indicating that publicly, the administration wants to make the case to Congress that sufficient progress has been made to justify an extension, and it needs to work out with the Iranians the terms of the extension, including its duration and whether the terms of the interim deal will be modified or simply rolled over for an additional period,” said Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The Vienna talks now include discussions of the terms and timeframe for an extension of the six-month deal that has curtailed parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited relief from sanctions, according to a U.S. official involved in negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are private.
No final decisions have been made, the official said.
Obama has been briefed by Secretary of State John Kerry, who returned from Vienna, and the president indicated talks are not on the brink of collapse, even if a deal can’t be sealed by July 20.
“It’s clear to me that we’ve made real progress in several areas, and that we have a credible way forward,” Obama said, while echoing Kerry’s comments that important differences remain between the two sides.
Kerry traveled to Vienna on July 13 for talks with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and returned to Washington after failing to reach a breakthrough. The interim agreement finalized in January to curtail Iran’s nuclear work in exchange for some sanctions relief allows for a six-month extension in talks.
Iran’s state-run Mehr News Agency yesterday reported that the nuclear talks will wrap up on July 18, with an extension “likely.” The talks could continue for a few months, according to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.
Iran and six world powers, including the U.S., agreed Nov. 24 on the interim deal to curb Iran’s uranium enrichment. That was intended to be a first step toward a long-term accord to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
In return for a comprehensive agreement to limit and verify Iran’s nuclear activities, the Islamic republic would be rewarded with the lifting of an array of international and US sanctions that have hit energy, banking, ports, insurance, shipping and other key sectors of Iran’s petroleum-based economy.
Kerry’s No. 2 at the State Department, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, also left Vienna, though the rest of the negotiating team remains in place, according to a U.S. official.
While Iran’s foreign minister has said he is staying on in Vienna in an attempt to bridge the gaps by July 20, both sides are in a “difficult position” to reach a deal by the deadline, Zarif said at a press briefing.
Negotiators have made progress on giving international monitors access to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and winning modifications to a reactor under construction, though they remain at loggerheads on core issues.
Two weeks into the latest round of negotiations, neither side has shown a willingness to budge on the critical issue of Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity. Kerry has said that Iran must cut back the 19,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges it currently has installed, half of which are operational.
If agreement on a final accord or extension isn’t reached before next week, Iran has said it’s ready to restart nuclear activities it had suspended. Some U.S. lawmakers have said they will introduce tighter sanctions intended to increase pressure on Iran.
“We need to have the option” of making nuclear fuel, Zarif said. Allowing more time for talks depends on whether a final accord is “feasible” and extra time would be “helpful,” he said.
In addition to disputes over enrichment, world powers want Iran to come clean about possible military dimensions of its previous nuclear work.