Meetings Continue, Time Ticks Away on Iran Nuclear Pact

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Diplomats held a flurry of meetings on Saturday and have two more days to salvage an agreement with Iran that seeks to alleviate concerns over its nuclear program in return for economic sanctions relief.

“Everything is on the table, the moment has come to decide,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement on Saturday after sitting down with other foreign ministers.

The negotiators on Friday missed their third deadline in two weeks and now have through July 13 to resolve the remaining sticking points in an accord that they say is mostly complete. Extending the talks past July 9 means the U.S. Congress will have 60 days to review any deal instead of 30 days, delaying the lifting of sanctions.

Negotiators “still have difficult issues to resolve,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Twitter following an early meeting on Saturday at the Palais Coburg with Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

Kerry, who on Friday cited a “very constructive” atmosphere at the talks, subsequently met with French Foreign Minister, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, and spoke by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He was back at the table with Zarif and Mogherini late into the Viennese night.

80-Page Draft

For energy-rich Iran, an agreement could speed its return to oil markets and lift financial restraints that have stifled its economy. For the U.S. and its regional allies, the goal is to restrict Iran’s ability to obtain nuclear weapons, which the Islamic Republic denies seeking.

Foreign ministers from Russia, the U.K. and France returned Saturday to review work done overnight on draft text, which diplomats say is about 80 pages long. After two weeks of the current round the sides are still struggling to resolve disputes on key issues of timing, reciprocity and sanctions relief.

President Barack Obama “has indicated to his negotiating team that they should remain in Vienna and they should continue to negotiate as long as the talks continue to be useful,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Friday in Washington.

Breaking Deadlines

The more upbeat remarks from the U.S. camp follow a period in which tensions have crept into the talks, with diplomats warning they could walk out or positioning themselves to blame the other side in the event of a breakdown.

Iran cautioned the U.S. against setting and breaking deadlines. The practice amounts to “psychological war,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Friday, according to the Iranian Students News Agency.

An Iranian member of parliament, Abdulvahid Fayazi, said Saturday that his country’s team “will never leave the negotiating table” to show that it’s the other side that is less committed, according to the IRNA news agency.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, meanwhile, chided the U.S. as the “absolute embodiment” of arrogance. “Get ready to continue struggle against it,” Khamanei told university students in Tehran on Saturday, according to the Fars news agency.

Talks Testy

The six world powers negotiating with Iran, who have largely preserved public unity during almost two years of intense diplomacy, have split on some issues in the final stretch, and discussions have sometimes turned acrimonious.

Russia, a potential arms supplier, has backed Iran’s demand for a United Nations arms embargo to be lifted. The U.S., whose close allies in the region such as Israel and Saudi Arabia are Iran’s main rivals, has dismissed a wholesale removal, though suggesting flexibility on the nature and duration of the embargo.

Under U.S. legislation providing for Congress to weigh in on any deal, the review period would revert to 30 days if an agreement isn’t reached until early September, after lawmakers return from their August recess.

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