VIENNA – Diplomacy with Iran may have reached an inflection point in the long-standing crisis over its nuclear program on Sunday in Vienna, where foreign ministers from the world’s most powerful nations met to gauge Iran’s seriousness at the negotiating table.
US Secretary of State John Kerry held individual meetings with his counterparts from the United Kingdom, Germany, the European Union and, in a rare one-on-one exchange, Iran, at the Palais Coburg residence in the Austrian capital.
“We have some very significant gaps still, so we need to see if we can make some progress,” Kerry told the press, before entering consultations.
According to US diplomats, those gaps are numerous and are wider than many had expected the parties to be at this point, merely a week before the July 20 deadline for talks. Reflecting public statements, Iranian officials have privately told their Western counterparts that they seek to expand – not reduce – Iran’s uranium enrichment capability, after world powers have insisted just the opposite is required to reach a comprehensive nuclear deal with the international community.
“There is no question that we have heard about Iran’s aspirations for its nuclear program in very specific terms and very specific numbers. And that remains far from a significant reduction in their current program,” one senior American official told reporters here, calling Iran’s negotiating position “unworkable and inadequate.”
An interim agreement reached last fall in Geneva granted parties at the table six months to negotiate. The parties may extend the talks, however, by up to six months, should all delegations at the table agree that substantial progress has been made.
“The gap on enrichment is a difficult gap to bridge,” said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s difficult because of what it says about Iran’s seriousness about getting a deal.”
A spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said over the weekend that Iran needs 50,000 centrifuges for peaceful purposes – 10 times the number Western officials have said they might be comfortable with.
“The view on the US side is that Iran’s position suggests they’re not really ready to give up their nuclear weapons ambitions,” Singh continued, “And when that’s the case, what is a deal really worth? And will more time really be the thing that gets you there?”
Granting an interview to the American Sunday interview show, NBC’s Meet the Press, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that he would commit “to everything and anything that would provide credible assurances for the international community that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons.”
“I can assure you that within the next 11 days... all of these concerns can be addressed,” Zarif said.
Zarif was the only minister to express optimism, however, as others took stock of the progress made over the course of the last six months. They also found themselves distracted by other crises: the foreign ministers of Britain and France expressed hope they might broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and Germany’s top diplomat shared choice words with Kerry on recent US spying revelations out of Berlin.
Even Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – whose envoys have said through past crises in Ukraine and Iraq that Western allies must keep focus on Iran – managed to connect his government’s Operation Protective Edge with the ongoing nuclear talks.
The type of confrontation Israel is currently engaged in with Hamas will only get worse if Iran is allowed to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, Netanyahu said on Sunday morning in Jerusalem .
“I would like to remind them [the P5+1 foreign ministers] that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are being financed, armed, and trained by Iran,” Netanyahu said at the opening of Sunday’s cabinet meeting.
“Iran is a terrorist power that finances, arms and trains the terrorist organizations that we are fighting against,” he continued. “This Iran cannot be allowed the ability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. If this happens, the things that we are seeing around us and the things that are happening in the Middle East will be far worse."
US officials said that Iran’s transfer of weapons to terrorist organizations in Gaza would be a topic of conversation in Kerry’s bilateral meeting with Zarif – only their second since a public rapprochement began last fall, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Netanyahu said that neither his predictions about developments in the Middle East nor those of other members of the cabinet should be taken lightly, since “these forecasts have, to my regret, come true one by one. The prediction of Iran as a nuclear threshold state cannot be allowed to come true, it cannot. This cannot be allowed to happen, and it will not happen.”
Among Netanyahu’s forecasts that have been borne out with time were that the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip would lead to missiles on Israel’s population centers, and that the 2011 Arab Spring would lead to less, not more, Middle East stability.
While discussing the lack of progress here with reporters, one American official noted US President Barack Obama’s commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world, starting with aggressive enforcement of the UN Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty – applicable to all signatories, including Iran.
At the UN General Assembly this year, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran holds out hope for a similar world, which begins, he says, with a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East – an overt reference to Israel’s nuclear program.
Western officials say the concept has not been a negotiating point behind closed doors.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.