Diplomats Untangle IAEA, Sanctions Snags With Iran Deal in Sight

Foreign ministers will reconvene in Vienna on Sunday to try and hammer out on the final sticking points separating six world powers from concluding a nuclear agreement with Iran.

With only four days to go until their already extended deadline expires, negotiators are still trying to agree on how to lift sanctions as well arrangements for international verification of Iran’s nuclear activity, according to two Western officials taking part in talks in Vienna who asked not to be named in line with diplomatic rules.

“We have made big progress but technical issues remain,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Friday. “We feel there is sufficient political will, but the political will has not been transferred to the bureaucracy.”

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which will administer major elements of any deal, flew back to the Austrian capital after meeting Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and top security official Ali Shamkhani on Thursday in Tehran. Should an accord be reached, the IAEA will need to give its assessment of Iran’s past alleged military activities, verify implementation and monitor future compliance.

“Both sides have a better understanding on some ways forward, though more work will be needed,” Yukiya Amano, the agency’s director general, said Friday in a statement. Rouhani’s chief of staff Mohammad Nahavandian was also heading to Vienna, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency reported.

Different understandings over the rights and privileges granted to IAEA inspectors have been a cause of friction inside Iran, where the agency has been accused of subterfuge and the use of bogus spy data.

Sensitive Locations

In what could turn out to be a significant concession, an Iranian diplomat said on Thursday that his country recognized the right of IAEA monitors to request visits to sensitive sites and ask questions of nuclear officials. But he said the Islamic Republic wouldn’t allow itself to be coerced or expose non-nuclear secrets.

“We are skeptical about the agency because it has shown that it is neither independent nor just,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in a June 23 televised speech. “It has repeatedly issued unfair verdicts and views.”

Amano went to Tehran at the invitation of Shamkhani, who helps oversee Iran’s military, according to a report by Iranian Student News Agency. That’s significant as the IAEA is seeking to understand whether and how the country’s armed forces are connected to its civilian nuclear work.

‘90 Percent’

“It was decided that the two sides work together in order to speed-up the cooperation between Iran and the IAEA,” Iranian spokesman Behrouz Kamalvand was quoted as saying. “Over the coming days the expert-level discussions in this area can continue so this issue can be finalized.”

Seven days into the final round of negotiations, diplomats say progress is building around an agreement that could give Iran substantial sanctions relief by December. The U.S. and Europe extended their interim agreement with Iran until July 7 to try to win time to clinch a deal.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister and top negotiator, Sergei Ryabkov, told reporters in Vienna late Thursday that 90 percent of the deal is agreed and there is “a total commitment of all participants to end this process in the next few days.”

Iranian officials have said they can take steps to curb their nuclear activities quickly to speed sanctions relief. Kerry said April 2 in Lausanne, Switzerland, that he expected it would take four to six months for Iran to make changes to its program and for UN monitors to verify the curbs.

Privately, U.S. officials have said it may take as much as nine months before the deal is verified and sanctions relief granted.

Ryabkov said all six powers negotiating with Iran agree on the lifting of UN sanctions and a mechanism for re-imposing them in the event of a breach of the accord, and that “intensive” work is continuing to secure an agreement with the Islamic Republic.