Iran Nuclear Talks May End With An Agreement to Talk More

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

World powers and Iran agreed to extend negotiations over the Persian Gulf country’s nuclear program by another seven months, risking a backlash from opponents who say the talks aren’t getting anywhere.

Diplomats gave themselves until March 1 to come up with a political framework and July 1 to spell out the technical steps needed to end the 11-year standoff. The extension was announced as negotiators in Vienna failed to meet yesterday’s deadline for a deal. The November 2013 interim accord between Iran and the six world powers, which caps nuclear work in exchange for limited sanctions relief, will remain in effect.

“A year ago we had no idea whether real progress could be made through these talks,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Vienna. “Today we are closer to a deal that would make the entire world, especially our allies and partners in Israel and the Gulf, safer and more secure.”

The failure to win a deal, though, is likely to embolden politicians in the U.S. and Iran who oppose the concessions needed to reach an accord. The U.S. wants Iran to limit the scope of its nuclear work, something the Islamic Republic says it’s only willing to do if sanctions are removed.

After the announcement of the extension, Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, said it’s time to “tighten the economic vice” on Iran to force concessions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the main opponents of the talks with Iran, made a similar call.

Sanctions Intact

The negotiators have “earned the benefit of the doubt,” Kerry said. “The interim agreement wasn’t violated. Iran has held up its end of the bargain and the sanctions regime has remained intact.”

His Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told reporters that a final accord is achievable within the timeframe diplomats have set out. He said any deal would involve Iran maintaining a “serious” enrichment program.

As a next step, the U.S. and the other nations involved in the talks -- China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K. -- will convene a so-called experts meeting next month with their Iranian counterparts, Kerry said.

While negotiations are extended, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will continue to gain intrusive access to Iranian nuclear facilities and uranium mines. Caps on the purity of enriched uranium that Iran is allowed to produce, and limits on the centrifuge technology it’s permitted to operate, will remain in force.

‘Sooner or Later’

Iran, with the world’s No. 4 oil reserves, will continue to receive about $700 million a month of unfrozen assets while negotiations continue through to July, according to an Iranian diplomat who asked not to be named. That’s the same amount it has been receiving for the past year under the interim deal.

Negotiators have been warning in recent days that they may need to extend the year-long talks. Iran’s capacity to produce fissile material -- highly enriched uranium and plutonium -- has been one of the central sticking points, along with the speed at which sanctions are rolled back.

Israel and the U.S. haven’t ruled out the possibility of military strikes to prevent Iran 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.

A “nuclear deal will be done sooner or later,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech shown on state television after the talks concluded.

‘Accumulated Mistrust’

It was Rouhani’s phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama in September 2013 that kicked off the negotiating process that has led to the current impasse. The Iranian president was elected last year after campaigning as a reformist, and some of his domestic opponents argue that his government has been too willing to make concessions to the U.S.

The U.S. and Iran haven’t shared diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the Shah’s American-backed government. The Middle East’s current political turbulence adds to the negotiating challenge, said John Limbert, a former State Department adviser who was taken hostage in Tehran during the revolution.

“The good news is that the U.S. and Iran are talking professionally and officially in a manner unprecedented in 35 years,” Limbert said in an interview. However, “a nuclear agreement may just be too hard to do right now because of both accumulated mistrust and the political realities on both sides.”

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