Time Running Out as U.S., Iran Seek to Salvage Nuclear Accord

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John Kerry, U.S. secretary of state, speaks at the SelectUSA 2013 Investment Summit in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Leading diplomats racing to strike a nuclear accord with Iran have little more than two days to overcome disagreements that threaten the outcome of their negotiations.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif today in Vienna, where talks between world powers and the Islamic Republic entered a fifth day. They have until Nov. 24 to agree on a comprehensive deal that would curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and roll back sanctions. Failure to reach an accord may embolden American and Iranian skeptics of the negotiation process.

“We still have some serious gaps which we’re working to close,” Kerry said today before meeting his German colleague, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “A lot of serious work is going on by a lot of people.”

The state-run Russian news agency Tass cited an unnamed “well-informed source” saying this round of talks may be extended one or two days if there are indications that a final deal could be reached with extra time.

Continuation any longer would run into the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday on Nov. 27, which could draw objections from U.S. officials.

Deal Expires

An interim deal, in which Iran agreed to scale back its nuclear activities in return for an easing of economic sanctions by six countries, is set to expire Nov. 24. The diplomatic fall-back position, a three- to six-month extension of that accord, is not yet being discussed, according to Tass. To meet the deadline, the focus of the talks would have to shift to details of the longer extension by late tomorrow.

Underscoring the high stakes, Kerry and Zarif yesterday reversed plans to temporarily leave the negotiations in Vienna in order to consult with other officials. They instead remained inside Vienna’s Palais Coburg negotiating and making phone calls to gather input from world leaders.

Kerry spoke with Arab foreign ministers today in a telephone conference, according to a U.S. official, who added that the secretary of state also contacted his Canadian and Turkish counterparts.

Later, Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to brief him on the negotiations, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the deliberations are private.

‘Hour of Truth’

The conflict over Iran’s nuclear program has cast a shadow of war over the Persian Gulf nation with the world’s No. 4 oil reserves. Israel and the U.S. have threatened military action to prevent the country from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran, which says its nuclear program is solely for energy and industrial uses, has seen its economy squeezed and oil output slashed under sanctions.

“After a long 10 years of talking to Iran we’ve come here in Vienna to the hour of truth,” Steinmeier told reporters today before meeting Kerry. Even as the sides are “closer than ever” to reaching a deal, “wide gaps” preventing agreement on key issues mean negotiators could still fall short of an accord, he said.

The speed at which sanctions hurting Iran’s economy are rolled back under a possible deal remained one of the main sticking points, four diplomats told Bloomberg News when talks began this week. Iran’s capacity to produce fissile material is the other main point of disagreement, they said.

An accord already exists in draft version, containing a four- or five-page introduction followed by 30 to 40 pages of details, according to a senior Iranian diplomat cited by the Islamic Student News Agency.

Lavrov Trip

“All the elements of an agreement are already on the table, and the task of diplomats now is to correctly put together a package,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday in Moscow, predicting that “common sense” will prevail. Lavrov will “probably” travel to participate in talks before the deadline expires, Tass reported today.

Iran’s Khorasan newspaper, citing an unnamed official familiar with the negotiations, reported that Zarif has taken a softer tone at this round of talks -- a departure from the shouting that it said had characterized past rounds.

Iran has signaled it’s willing to continue allowing intrusive international inspections of its nuclear facilities even if there’s no deal this weekend, according to Western officials. The U.S. is “committed to pause” its efforts to reduce Iranian oil sales under the interim accord that’s currently due to expire on Nov. 24, the White House said in a statement yesterday.

The recent slide in oil prices has dealt another blow to Iran. It’s also squeezing Russia, another country targeted by Western sanctions, which has signed deals to buy oil from Iran and sell nuclear reactors.

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