LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- Gridlock held in Switzerland on the seventh marathon day of negotiations between world powers and Iran, stuck not only on the contents of a nuclear deal but on its very nature and form.
Technical solutions continue to elude negotiators on a host of issues, including the future of Iran's research and development of nuclear technology, how to dispose of Iran's uranium stockpile and the pace with which sanctions would be eased under any future deal.
The Obama administration considers these decisions, among others, to be matters of policy, ultimately requiring political will that Iran must demonstrate before talks continue on a technical level toward a hard deadline of June 30.
But Tehran disagrees, and on Wednesday continued to insist on a single-step agreement that codifies all tenets of a deal.
"The Iranians are very sensitive, at this point, when it comes to anything that appears like a two-stage agreement," Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, said in an interview.
After a similar pattern of negotiations over a nuclear fuel swap failed in 2009 between the US and Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei publicly ruled out negotiating in stages. Iran's diplomats are now trying to work with the Americans— adamant on reaching a framework they can present to the US Congress— that will also satisfy Khamenei's demands.
Thus, argument over the very nature of an agreement has become a negotiation in and of itself. One senior Iranian official here told local press to expect a mere press statement produced from Lausanne, far short of the standard set by Washington and other international powers.
Diplomats from the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany worked straight through a self-imposed deadline on Tuesday night in its talks with the Islamic Republic. Those powers, known formally as the P5+1, aim to cap, restrict, monitor and partially roll back Iran's nuclear work for a finite period.
After a long night's work, delegates and ministers from the US, Germany and Iran slowly began their morning at separate ends of the same terrace cafe at the Beau Rivage Palace, on the shores of Lake Geneva. The foreign ministers of Russia, China and France all left in Wednesday's early morning hours, expressing mixed messages on the progress made and the path forward.
France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, planned to return on Thursday morning, one official said. Paris' chief negotiator in the talks, Nicolas de Rivière, told The Jerusalem Post
that "there is no deadline" as midnight fell on March 31, confirming his government's public skepticism over the wisdom of a self-imposed deadline.
Only hours later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested a deal was at hand. And Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that diplomats were prepared to start drafting a comprehensive nuclear agreement.
British Secretary of State Philip Hammond described their progress in similar terms, telling journalists on Wednesday morning that a "broad framework of understanding" had been reached, but that negotiators were short of an agreement.
No such affirmation came from the US or France, which remained largely silent throughout the day.
"We continue to make progress but have not reached a political understanding," State Department Acting Spokesperson Marie Harf said on Wednesday evening to American press. "Therefore, Secretary Kerry will remain in Lausanne until at least Thursday morning to continue the negotiations."
Back in Washington, the White House stated that— despite his firm belief that a deal is in the national security interests of Israel, the US and the world— US President Barack Obama is "prepared to walk away" from the negotiating table.
"The international community would, understandably, hold Iran accountable" should negotiations fail, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
Failure appeared to be a real possibility to China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, as talks deadlocked on Wednesday night. Releasing a statement in the morning hours, Wang expressed support for a clear political framework and a "step-by-step" approach in a long-term deal based on reciprocity.
Iran is calling for the immediate lifting of all sanctions against its country, beginning first at the United Nations Security Council. But once again, political agreements precede technical ones.
Paris and Washington want to phase sanctions relief based on qualifiable, documented adherence to a deal by Tehran. Furthermore, they seek a mechanism in the Security Council that would "snap back" sanctions in place should Iran violate the deal.
But Moscow, protective of its veto power as a permanent member of the council, opposes a snap back mechanism and warns its implementation would set a dangerous precedent.
"If the negotiations are stuck, all previous efforts will be wasted," Wang warned. "No agreement is possible without accommodating the core concerns of the various parties."
As the sun set on another difficult day here at the Lausanne talks, called historic by its participants regardless of its product, Iranians stood their ground and questioned the political will of Western powers.
"For sure, our research and development of advanced centrifuge machines should continue," Abbas Araghchi, Iran's deputy foreign minister, told his country's press corps. "We insist on lifting of financial, oil and banking sanctions immediately."
All parties agreed to an understanding that talks would proceed well into the night.