U.S. and Iranian diplomats dug in over the last obstacles to a historic nuclear deal and signaled they’d let slip their chance to seal an accord by their latest self-prescribed deadline.
Appearing on the third-floor terrace of the Palais Coburg in Vienna, where negotiations are in their 17th day, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif motioned with his head to indicate “no” after assembled journalists on the square below shouted whether an accord was possible by Monday’s deadline. An Iranian official who asked not to be named later confirmed negotiators expected to miss the July 13 date targeted for a deal.
An accord would be “a triumph of diplomacy,” Zarif said via Twitter a few minutes after his appearance on the balcony. A deal would mean “we all will have won” and would require “no spin” to make people understand its significance.
It’s the fourth deadline that the assembled foreign ministers from Iran and six world powers have missed in the last two weeks. In Washington, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said there were still “some sticking points.”
“If it’s necessary for them to continue conversations and those conversations remain useful, then the negotiating team will remain in Vienna,” Earnest told reporters.
Tensions have crept into the talks, with diplomats warning that they could walk out or positioning themselves to blame the other side in the event of a breakdown.
“I’m angry,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was said to have told Zarif earlier in the day after his Iranian counterpart asked about his mood.
While Lavrov smiled following his answer, according to a diplomat who witnessed the exchange, his response underlined the tense atmosphere.
Lavrov said last week that he expected to return only if and when details of the accord were worked out. When he arrived last night, gaps in the 100-page agreement, said to be 98 percent complete, forced officials to work until 4 a.m. Monday morning.
But the long overnight work still couldn’t bridge all the gaps, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi said, adding that negotiations could go into Tuesday.
“I cannot promise that the issues will be resolved by tonight or tomorrow night,” Araghchi said.
Negotiators cleared one of their last hurdles late Sunday when they agreed on the phased lifting of a United Nations arms embargo that will stretch over eight years, according to two diplomats from the six nations negotiating with Iran. Timing and the language of a new UN Security Council resolution that would lift penalties imposed on Iranian companies and individuals was among the last issues up for discussion, they said.
For more, read this QuickTake: Iran's Nuclear Program
U.S. and Iranian desires to claim a victory to domestic audiences are also hampering progress, the officials said. China, Russia and the European nations at the talks -- France, Germany and the U.K. -- had settled on earlier wording that both the U.S. and Iran now want to change.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry continued meetings with Zarif, and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. A session with all seven nations was scheduled for Monday evening, according to a participating official who asked not to be named.
Speaking from his balcony at the hotel on Sunday, Zarif had told reporters another extension wasn’t being contemplated.
Kerry said Sunday he and Zarif had a “very good” meeting and once again voiced optimism that an agreement was within reach. “We’re getting to some real decisions,” Kerry said. “So I will say -- because we have a few tough things to do -- I remain hopeful. Hopeful.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in Tehran, seemed upbeat, saying only the final “few steps” remained. “We have come a long way and now we need to reach the peak, and we are very close to it,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by the state-supported Iranian Students News Agency.
Spokesmen from the European Union and U.S. didn’t immediately respond to requests asking whether their interim accord with Iran would be extended. That accord froze Iran’s most sensitive sanctions relief in return for limited sanctions relief.
Earnest, the White House spokesman, said he expected the interim accord would remain in place.