Contentious nuclear talks between world powers and Tehran hit a new snag Friday after Iran apparently again turned down U.S. demands for concessions, leaving negotiations in limbo just three days before a deadline for a deal.
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U.S. President Barack Obama is set to seek an extension of the talks past the current November 24 deadline for reaching a deal, White House aides told congressional Democrats on Friday, according to a report on Yahoo News.
It’s a “reasonable expectation that we'll be requesting an extension,” one Obama aide said, according to the report. There are “eons to go until Monday, but it’s going to be pretty difficult to get to a comprehensive agreement by Monday,” though “not impossible,” he said, but did not specify a duration.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry could propose the idea as early as Friday night to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, White House aides told congressional Democrats during a Friday briefing on Capitol Hill.
In hours of high drama reflecting the delicate stage of the talks, both Kerry and Zarif first made, then cancelled plans to walk away from the talks — at least temporarily — for additional consultations. Such developments could have meant possible progress, suggesting that the Iranians needed political approval from Tehran to move forward.
After initially announcing he was flying to Paris, Kerry suddenly reversed course and scheduled a new meeting with Zarif late Friday, with the two talking into the evening for more than two hours.
Iranian media initially spoke of a new U.S. initiative that Zarif needed to have his superiors sign off on, but the Iranian diplomat dashed those hopes. "There have been a lot of discussions in Vienna, but there were no remarkable offers and ideas to take to Tehran," Zarif told Iran's official IRNA news agency.
The remark reflected the probability that substantial obstacles remain in the way of a deal that would cap Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief — a view reinforced by senior diplomats of other nations taking part in the negotiations.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said that a phone call between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov revealed that "more efforts are needed" to meet Monday's deadline for a deal. And after consulting in Vienna with participants in the talks, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond spoke of "a very significant gap between the parties."
Kerry and Zarif have both emphasized that there has been no discussion about extending the talks — for a second time — if the deadline is not met. At the same time, the stubborn differences increasingly suggest little choice than to agree to continue talking past Monday — or to call the negotiations a failure, something neither side can afford to do.
Breaking off the talks would embolden Iran to end a freeze on nuclear activities it says it needs for civilian purposes, but which can also be used to make atomic arms. Tehran could turn instead to expanding its atomic program, reigniting the threat of Israeli and potential U.S. military action.
Even if the deadline is missed, both sides hope they can persuade skeptics at home that enough progress was achieved to warrant further pursuit of a full deal.
The U.S. administration needs to persuade opponents in Congress that it's in Washington's interests — a prospect made more difficult by the Republican sweep in Nov. 4 elections. That could make it easier to muster a two-thirds majority for new sanctions legislation in the new year — something President Barack Obama would be powerless to veto.
Republican senators sent a letter to the White House on Wednesday urging the administration against trying to circumvent Congress in any deal with Iran. "Unless the White House genuinely engages with Congress, we see no way that any agreement consisting of your administration's current proposals to Iran will endure," said the letter, which was signed by all 45 Senate Republicans.
In Iran, restive hard-liners will likely embark on a big push against any deadline extension. President Hassan Rouhani's negotiating team has so far been supported by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But a lack of agreement by Monday may sway Khamenei, who has frequently expressed distrust of U.S. aims at the talks even while backing the process up to now.
Senate skeptics are worried that any deal will relieve sanctions pressure on Iran without making a sizable dent in its ability to make a nuclear weapon. Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards and other hard-liners voice their own concern — that Iran will reverse decades of nuclear achievement and scrap its programs for insufficient economic sanctions relief.
The main obstacle remains how deeply to cut into Tehran's uranium enrichment program, which can make both reactor fuel for civilian purposes and the fissile core of nuclear weapons.
The two sides have moved closer.
The U.S. initially wanted Iran to slash its uranium enriching centrifuges to less than 2,000 from the nearly 10,000 it now runs, but says it can accept 4,500 if Tehran accepts other conditions meant to slow its ability to turn toward making weapons-grade uranium. Iran, which came to the talks in February insisting it be allowed to keep its present program, now says it can reduce to 8,000.
But Washington and Tehran both appear unready for substantial new concessions. They also differ on how long constraints should remain on Tehran's nuclear program. Diplomats told The Associated Press last week that while the U.S. could now accept 15 years of strict limits on the programs instead of its original demand of at least 20 years, the Iranians insist on no more than 10 years.