WASHINGTON -- The United States is willing to extend its nuclear talks with Iran by a few days beyond a critical June 30 deadline, but by no more, a senior administration official told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
After two years of historic negotiations, and over two months since agreeing upon a framework for a nuclear deal, negotiators are preparing to converge on Vienna for one final push this weekend. They seek a final multilateral agreement that will cap, restrict, monitor and partially roll back Tehran's vast nuclear program for a limited period in exchange for sanctions relief.
But that framework agreement, reached in Lausanne on April 2, was intended to conclude all questions of political will surrounding the longstanding nuclear dispute. It did not, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reasserted on Monday, before entering talks with his European counterparts in Luxembourg.
"Reaching a good nuclear deal is more important than missing the deadline by a few days," Zarif said, according to an Iranian state-run news agency. "There is a good possibility we can finish this by the deadline, or a few days after the deadline."
"There are still differences," he continued, "some political and some technical."
That, in part, is why the Obama administration is so keen on finishing the negotiations by or near the pending deadline: Several more weeks or months will not make the necessary political decisions any easier, US officials argue.
The technical challenges are a different matter. And to that end, delegates from the seven nations party to the talks are working on a constant basis to finish the comprehensive document.
The White House acknowledged on Monday that, while the June 30 deadline is firm, a buffer period of a few days may be required to overcome the most daunting obstacles standing in the way of an agreement.
"I think everyone has been suitably realistic," State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters. "The date is not more important than the deal."
There are also practical considerations. The talks are likely to end— deal or no deal— by July 9, the administration official said, when Congress returns from its Independence Day recess.
A bill recently passed into law allows Congress to review and vote on a deal within 30 days, should lawmakers arrive back on Capitol Hill to the full text a deal. Should there be no deal, the time they have to review any future text they recieve doubles to 60 days.
The president would then have time to veto any resolution of disapproval, and Congress would then have a short period to vote to override his veto, bringing the congressional review process to a total 82 days should a deal come to pass after July 10.
Only then would enforcement begin in earnest. And at the outset of the deal, Iran will have to comply with a specific set of tasks before receiving the bulk of sanctions relief it seeks from the United Nations Security Council.
That will require an historic, unanimous vote, which US President Barack Obama plans to preside over while in office. But if the talks were extended by months— and accounting for the role of Congress— that vote would not take place until the tail end of his presidency.
Congress is not the only legislative body with a role key to the fate of the effort. Iran's parliament on Sunday passed a critical bill that restricts the ability of its negotiators to concede on major remaining sticking points in the negotiating room.
Passing with overwhelming support in the chamber, many of Iran's parliamentarians chanted "Death to America" as the vote went through. Kirby said the US noted of the chanting, and of the "preliminary" legislative measure, but said that neither development would affect the negotiations ongoing in Austria.
The two main issues addressed in the Iranian bill are the two challenging diplomats the most: On the pacing of sanctions relief, and on the access international inspectors seek to some of Iran's military installations.
Washington and Paris say they cannot envision concluding a deal that does not include access to military sites suspected of hosting Iran's experimentation with nuclear weaponry. US officials specifically seek access for the UN's nuclear watchdog to Parchin, where the International Atomic Energy Agency has been denied access for its investigation into Iran's nuclear program since 2005.
On Monday, after meeting with Zarif, France's foreign minister Laurent Fabius said he expected a robust deal will include access to military installations "if necessary," and reiterated the need for a clear mechanism that will snap back UN sanctions on Iran should it violate the deal at any point.
Western powers also seek to phase in sanctions relief based on Iran's compliance with the deal over time, and to pair that relief with the completion of specific tasks outlined in the agreement.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has rejected all of these demands in recent weeks. And the country's parliament codified his positions on Sunday, demanding an "immediate" sanctions lift and ruling out any access to its military sites.
The bill cannot become law until Tehran's Guardian Council, an unelected body, approves of the measure. Iran says the IAEA is exceeding its mandate by requesting access to military complexes, which host state secrets, held sacred by all sovereign nations.
After meeting with Fabius and Zarif, among others, Germany's foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that the negotiations had entered a "very decisive period."
"But we're not at the endpoint," Steinmeier added. "The basic points need to be translated into a comprehensive negotiating text and that's not easy as negotiating in detail has created a few hindrances."
"We must hope," he continued, "that the Iranians move on decisive points and that we come to a close."
In Berlin, a German foreign ministry spokesman said that the approaching deadline was "tight."
"Eight days are not much time anymore," the spokesman, Martin Schaefer, told reporters on Monday. "We'll concentrate all our efforts on making sure the June 30 [deadline] remains June 30."
While chief diplomats from the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and Iran have not physically been on the ground on a constant basis, their teams have effectively camped out in Vienna ever since the Lausanne agreement was inked back in April. Their task is to write the lengthy document, annexes and all, before their foreign ministers arrive toward the last moment to hammer out final sentences.
And while US Secretary of State John Kerry suffered a bicycle accident last month while in Geneva for meetings on that document with Zarif, he has remained fully engaged in the effort, his aides say.
Earlier on Monday, Britain's foreign minister said that— after two years at the constant effort— "the serious negotiations are now getting under way," the devil being in the details.
"There will need to be some more flexibility shown by our Iranian partners if we are going to reach a deal," UK Foreign Minister Philip Hammond said. "But, look: This is a negotiation. We always expected it would go right to the line and maybe beyond the line."