Negotiators aim to conclude a framework agreement over Iran’s nuclear program by March 29, diplomats said, as envoys reported progress after talks resumed in Switzerland.
Reaching an understanding by Sunday is a best-case scenario and the sides may be forced to go until March 31, according to three European and U.S. officials, who asked not to be named in line with diplomatic rules. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is provisionally scheduled to attend an event with President Barack Obama and Senate leaders on March 30.
Kerry resumed talks on Thursday with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Beau Rivage Palace on the shores of Lake Geneva in Lausanne. If an agreement is reached, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and top diplomats from China, France, Germany, and the U.K. will join them to formalize the pact, a spokesman for Russia’s foreign ministry told reporters.
Envoys have “dealt with a number of issues” but “before we see the entire puzzle, we cannot say” if there will be a deal, Zarif said Thursday after his meetings with Kerry.
Diplomats are still wrangling over how they’ll define the accord as well as the extent to which details will be released, the three diplomats said. In November, negotiators gave themselves until the end of this month to agree on a “political framework” that would lead to a final accord by July 1.
While U.S. officials insist that any understanding needs hard numbers and details, the Iranian delegation prefers to hold off on specifics until the technical annexes of the agreement are finished, according to the officials.
The sides may compromise by drafting a joint declaration that emphasizes agreements in principle on the scope of Iran’s nuclear program and the pace of sanctions relief. Obama administration officials have committed to briefing skeptical Congressional representatives who are considering legislation that could complicate talks.
Differences exist among the six world powers negotiating with Iran over the tactical approach to getting the best deal, a State Department official involved in the process told reporters traveling with Kerry. Still, the U.S. is united with its partners in trying to get the longest-possible agreement to restrict and monitor Iran’s nuclear activity, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol.
French officials have spoken out in the past week about remaining gaps with Iran, including over the duration of a deal, limits on research and development and access for United Nations atomic inspectors. The French government has warned against rushing into an agreement to satisfy the March deadline, set last year when talks were extended.
President Francois Hollande spoke with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, on Thursday at the latter’s request, the French president’s office said by e-mail. Hollande urged a “durable, robust and verifiable accord.” Rouhani also spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kerry continues to insist next week’s deadline is important, though he has stressed the U.S. won’t accept a bad deal. The British and French ambassadors to the UN echoed that sentiment on Tuesday. The Iranian government has downplayed the March deadline, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying he doesn’t want a two-step process of an understanding followed months later by a written deal.
Under a 2013 interim accord, Iran agreed to limit its enrichment capacity to 5 percent, a level needed for energy reactors, to convert its stockpile of 20 percent medium-enriched uranium for a medical reactor, and to expand access for UN inspectors to all declared nuclear facilities, uranium mines and mills.