Iran and world powers may struggle to meet a self-imposed July deadline to agree on long-term limitations to the nation’s nuclear work in return for sanctions relief, according to former diplomats and analysts.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton meet today in Vienna. Diplomats from China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S., the so-called P5+1, convene meetings with their counterparts from Iran tomorrow for the first round of talks since reaching their Geneva accord in November.
“The six-month deadline is tight,” Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. undersecretary of state and ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview. “If real progress is being made, an extension would certainly be warranted.”
The initial deal, which took effect in January, froze Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work for sanctions relief valued at as much as $7 billion. The U.S. and its allies have accused Iran of seeking nuclear weapons, a charge it has denied during the decade-long dispute.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reiterated that he doesn’t expect talks to yield an agreement.
Government “officials think that within the nuclear issue negotiations will solve problems,” Khamenei said today at a ceremony in Tabriz, Iran, commemorating the 1979 Islamic Revolution. “I am not an optimist and it won’t get anywhere but I have no opposition” to talks, he said.
The current deal, which eases curbs on trade in auto and airplane parts, precious metals and petrochemicals, may be extended if the sides can’t win a new agreement by July and talks show progress, U.S. officials have said.
“The next five months are very unlikely to see a full agreement but there are strong prospects of a clear road map,” said Paul Rogers, global-security specialist at the Oxford Research Group, a London-based conflict-advisory group. An agreement may emerge “quite possibly over one to three years.”
Iran, with the world’s No. 4 proven oil reserves, risks having its nuclear facilities attacked by Israel or the U.S. if negotiations fail. Progress in talks has weighed on oil prices as traders have speculated more Iranian crude could enter the market and the probability of a conflict has fallen.
Negotiators are likely to define the most contentious subjects, separating them before trying to find mutually acceptable compromises, according to Pickering, who is a member of The Iran Project, a group that wants to improve U.S. relations with Iran. Uranium enrichment, plutonium production, international inspections and Iran’s alleged weapons work during the 1990s should be on the agenda, he said.
“It is standard negotiating procedure for states to set out their maximalist positions, a situation all the more challenging because they have domestic constituencies to appease,” said Paul Ingram, executive director of the London-based British-American Security Information Council. “It is so rare to see rapid improvements, and why we have to consider the most likely outcome of the six-month interim period is an further extension.”
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