WASHINGTON – Fewer than three weeks remain for the world’s most weathered diplomats to forge a comprehensive deal with Tehran over its nuclear program, a fact on the minds of all present in Vienna on Thursday, as high-level negotiations resumed.
Delegations from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany – formally known as the P5+1 powers – arrived in Vienna at the beginning of July and will effectively set up camp in the Austrian capital until July 20, a self-imposed deadline for the parties to reach a deal, extend the talks, or go home.
US officials say they are focused solely on the July 20 deadline, though an extension of the talks would likely require a separate negotiation.
An extension, too, would introduce new politics and personalities: two delegates at the table, US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton are set to leave office in the autumn. And the congressional midterm elections in the US, with control of the Senate at stake, could complicate Washington’s ability to compromise.
Speaking to reporters by phone from the summit, a senior US administration official said that negotiators had agreed an extension of only a few days might be necessary, but that “all eyes” are on the deadline.
Western powers offered “multiple pathways” to Iran to end the nuclear impasse, the official said, adding that the time has come for Iran to choose one of them.
“One can put together different packages” of elements that will prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the official said. “The facts are that we are putting down very reasonable positions.”
Nevertheless, the P5+1 powers remain unsatisfied with the degree to which Tehran appears ready to compromise, on virtually every issue before them, ranging from an acceptable cap on uranium enrichment to oversight of research and development, to the degree and pace with which the West should lift sanctions on Iran, and just how long a deal should last.
“Iran has reduced the number of centrifuges it wants but the number is still unacceptably high,” one Western diplomat said on Wednesday, without further detail.
Foreign policy leaders on Capitol Hill, both Democrat and Republican, have suggested a comprehensive plan of action last for 20 years or more. And the Israeli government, preparing a response to the possible announcement of a deal this month, is still calling for the complete dismantling and removal of all materials concerned within Iran’s vast nuclear infrastructure.
“We’re certainly familiar with Israel’s concerns,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Wednesday. “We remain in touch with them and have done a range of briefings.”
“No deal is better than a bad deal,” Psaki reiterated. “That’s something that remains the case and remains the bar. But we also believe that this is a process that could lead to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, which we feel is in the interests of all countries, including Israel.”
But pushing back against Western demands – and rhetoric – entering the final stage, Iran’s chief negotiator and foreign minister, Javad Zarif, warned the United States against engaging in brinkmanship at the negotiating table.
“As we approach July 20, I feel compelled to warn again that pursuing a game of chicken in an attempt to extract last-minute concessions cannot achieve anything,” Zarif said in a You-Tube message, released shortly after US Secretary of State John Kerry published an op-ed on the negotiations in The Washington Post.
“We are trying to reach a deal: not a good deal, or a bad deal, but a doable and lasting deal,” Zarif continued. “And any deal by definition is the outcome of mutual understanding, not imposition by one side or another.”
On the call with journalists, the senior official rejected Zarif’s characterization of the fundamental nature of the talks: the United States would not meet Iran “half way,” she said, as it is the Islamic Republic that is out of step with longstanding international obligations.
“All we are asking is that Iran come in line with its responsibilities after years of not doing so,” the official said. “This is not a mediation.”
In his op-ed, Kerry – who may fly to Vienna should the talks intensify – said time was running out for Iran to demonstrate its stated intent to deal.
“Their public optimism about the potential outcome of these negotiations has not been matched, to date, by the positions they have articulated behind closed doors,” Kerry wrote.
In his video message, Zarif also accused a US-led financial sanctions regime of literally killing his country’s cancer patients, prohibiting the transfer of medical equipment into Iran. The “unnecessary crisis” over the nuclear program, he added, “has distracted us from addressing together our common challenges, such as the horrifying events in the last few weeks in Iraq.”
Reflecting the conflation of the crises from a Washington perspective, Psaki suggested on Wednesday that the transfer or sale of aircraft and arms to Baghdad from Tehran, if confirmed, would constitute a violation of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. The transfer, however, has not been independently confirmed.
Reuters contributed to this report.