Kerry, Zarif See Tough Talks as Iran Deal Still in Balance

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said they expect a tough final round of talks mired in disputes over sanctions relief, verification and the scope of Iran’s nuclear research.

Top diplomats are gathering at the Palais Coburg in Vienna ahead of their self-imposed June 30 deadline for a deal. International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano made his first appearance at ministerial-level talks on Saturday. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, arrives Sunday.

“I think we all look forward to getting down to the final effort here to see whether or not a deal is possible,” Kerry said before sitting down with Zarif. “Everybody would like to see an agreement, but we have to work through some difficult issues.”

Policy makers in the Islamic Republic and the U.S. have been highlighting their red lines in the run-up to this round of negotiations. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in Tehran on Tuesday that onerous nuclear-research restrictions and delayed sanctions relief would be deal killers. Two days later, U.S. officials reiterated that relief wouldn’t be given until international monitors have verified the deal is in place.

‘Everything We Can’

“We need to work really hard in order to be able to make progress and move forward,” Zarif said. “We are determined to do everything we can to be able to make this effort possible.”

Diplomats have said they’ll probably miss the June 30 deadline and are prepared to stay longer. Should an agreement be reached, American negotiators have until July 9 to provide Congress with documents to streamline the review process.

In remarks to reporters on arrival in Vienna on Saturday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius outlined three points of contention: limits on Iran’s nuclear research, international verification of an agreement and a mechanism to reimpose sanctions if an accord is violated.

The appearance of Amano at the talks was intended “to help make a joint comprehensive plan of action technically sound,” the agency said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Great Difficulty’

Zarif’s deputy, Abbas Araghchi, told state television earlier Saturday that even though “a large part of the text had been finalized” some issues raised by negotiating counterparts “rendered the work somewhat more difficult.”

There are some issues where they’re encountering “great difficulty,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the state news service RIA Novosti on Friday. President Barack Obama told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in a phone call Thursday that their countries have to stick together at the Iran talks.

The current round of negotiations, one of many in the 12-year dispute, began 21 months ago when Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by phone after a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. A successful accord would be seen as a centerpiece of Obama’s foreign-policy legacy and could begin easing the countries’ 35-year estrangement.

According to an April 2 U.S. fact sheet on the framework deal, Iran will need to cut its nuclear capacity by two-thirds, stop enriching uranium at a facility built into a mountain, swear off plutonium production and cut its fuel stockpile by 97 percent. In return, the country will receive sanctions relief that will let it boost oil exports and tap international financial markets.

‘Contrasting Interpretations’

“Contrasting interpretations of aspects of the Lausanne framework are at the heart of this clincher,” Peter Jenkins, a former U.K. diplomat who helped lead nuclear negotiations with Rouhani before he become president, said in an e-mail. “Both sides have so much to gain that I will be surprised if they fail to do a deal by July 8.”

Outside the hotel where negotiations took place on Saturday, family members of two of four Americans imprisoned or missing in Iran sought out reporters.

The sister of Amir Hekmati, 31, a former U.S. Marine who was visiting his grandmother in Iran when he was arrested and accused of spying in 2011, and the brother of Jason Rezaian, 39, a Washington Post reporter who was imprisoned in 2014 on charges of spying, urged that the plight of their loved ones not be forgotten in the push for an accord.

U.S. officials say the charges against the pair, as well as an Iranian-American pastor named Saeed Abedini, imprisoned in 2012, are false, and that they advocate for their release and information about Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran eight years ago, in every meeting with Iran.

Some members of Congress have said that the U.S. has maximum leverage now, and should make the men’s release a condition of any deal. The Obama administration says the fate of the men can’t be tied to the talks, insisting they should be released with or without a nuclear deal.