Secretary of State John F. Kerry says negotiators in Iran nuclear talks are making “real progress.” Continuing the talks beyond Thursday means that Congress will have 60 days, instead of 30, to review any agreement.]
VIENNA — Diplomats at the Iran nuclear talks on Thursday edged closer to reaching agreement on a handful of outstanding issues, as they held a flurry of back-to-back meetings to try to finish their work before a looming deadline.
The official deadline, twice extended in the last two weeks, is Friday. But several diplomats indicated they are mindful of the Obama administration’s desire to submit a completed deal to Congress by the end of the day Thursday. That would avoid triggering provisions that give lawmakers 60 days, instead of 30, to review the details.
With that unofficial deadline in mind, the six countries negotiating with Iran have set a goal of getting an agreement by midnight in Vienna, which is six hours ahead of Washington. However, some diplomats said it was doubtful that an agreement could be reached that quickly.
The White House released a statement saying President Obama had held a secure video conference with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and the U.S. negotiating team. In the call, Obama “provided guidance related to our ongoing efforts to achieve a good deal between the P5+1 and Iran that meets our requirements.”
Diplomats from the P5+1 — which refers to the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — met Thursday morning for a little over an hour, as some of the foreign ministers who had left the Austrian capital on Tuesday returned to join the talks. Kerry followed that up with a series of separate meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and their counterparts from Britain and France.
The sense of urgency suggests the United States and its partners are reiterating what they have said publicly, that the time for Iran to make a deal with them is quickly running out.
As the air bristled with expectation around the deluxe Coburg Palace Hotel where the talks are being held, every hour seemed to fuel new rumors that a deal was finally at hand, or the talks were still deadlocked.
“I am not ruling anything out,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, speaking at a conference of emerging nations in the Russian city of Ufa. “It is possible that the agreement will be reached in the next few hours.”
“If a political decision is made by a number of members in the six-nation team and Iran, everything could happen very quickly,” Ryabkov added.
Separately, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, held a meeting, a by-now routine daily discussion between the two nuclear physicists who are charged with ironing out the technical details in any agreement that would place curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
“Hopefully today is the last day,” Salehi told reporters.
“We’re going to resolve the last issues — if we can,” Moniz added.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, also speaking in Ufa, said he expected to return to Vienna soon for what he anticipates will be the approval of a deal with Iran.
“Hopefully, this will be a truly final meeting where we will be able to give final approval to certain nuances rather than a meeting where some will try to reopen agreements of the previous stage,” he told reporters. “Alas, our contacts have not been spared such attempts, which do not help but drag us back and delay the achievement of final agreements.”
Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister taking part in the negotiations, told Iranian TV that “only a handful” of key issues remain, including the timetable under which Iran would allow international inspectors to visit nuclear sites while the United Nations, the United States and the European Union prepare to lift sanctions.
He also said the two sides are still discussing a key Iranian demand, the lifting of a U.N. embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran. The United States has opposed dropping that ban.
Russia, which hopes to sell arms to Iran, has come out in support of lifting the arms embargo, but under the framework agreement settled three months ago, the arms embargo would stay in place.
“We want the arms embargo, in principle, to be one of the listed sanction restrictions lifted in the first turn,” Lavrov said at a news conference, according to the Interfax news agency.
In seeking to bridge the different viewpoints, diplomats are believed to be discussing ways to postpone the lifting of the arms embargo, perhaps for several years, according to diplomatic sources.
Before the P5+1 group began meeting Thursday morning, a reporter asked whether a deal was imminent.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, in what sounded like a jestful tone, “It’s the same nine months later.”
After the diplomats finished laughing, Kerry chimed in, “You guys are living ‘Groundhog Day.’ ”