Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program will be extended for seven months, with world powers seeking a political framework agreement within four, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Monday.
Praising the Iranians for “working hard” in “good faith, with seriousness and purpose,” Kerry said that progress had been made in recent days “on some of the most vexing challenges” facing the parties.
Foreign ministers from the P5+1 world powers at the table – the US, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany – all flew to Vienna in the lead-up to a deadline on the talks, which came and went Monday unmet.
But while no details were provided, Britain and Russia’s chief diplomats said on Monday that “substantial progress” had been made on the toughest issues facing negotiators.
“We would be fools to walk away from a situation where the breakout times have been expanded,” Kerry told reporters in Vienna, charging that “it makes absolute sense to continue to talk.”
An interim agreement reached a year ago and first implemented last January has successfully frozen Iran’s vast nuclear program, Kerry asserted.
World powers suspect the program has military dimensions.
Iran is now set to receive $700 million per month through the end of June as part of the extension of that accord, which was set to expire in January 2015.
“During the talks in Vienna many gaps were narrowed and our positions with the other side got closer,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quoted as saying by local media, insisting “victory” was in Tehran’s reach.
Referencing those who support alternative paths to halt Iran’s program – primarily, the use of military force – Kerry said that diplomacy has made the world safer, and that efforts over the past year have earned negotiators the “benefit of the doubt” over those “who say we should rush ahead down a different course.”
US President Barack Obama believes the best, most effective path forward is the current diplomatic path, Kerry said.
“We really want this to work,” he said, adding that a deal would make Israel and America’s allies in the Gulf region safer.
“We want to reach a comprehensive deal,” he continued, “and we want it to work for everybody.”
Meanwhile, Israel reacted with a palpable sigh of relief to the inability of the world powers and Iran to reach a nuclear agreement on Monday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterizing the failure to reach an accord as “very important.”
Netanyahu repeated his position that “no agreement is preferable to a bad agreement,” and that the agreement Iran wanted to sign would have been “very bad and dangerous” for Israel, for the region and the world.
“It is very important that this agreement has been prevented as of now, but a struggle is yet before us, and we intend to continue this struggle in order to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state that would endanger us and others,” he said in comments to the Likud faction in the Knesset.
“Israel will always act on this matter and reserves its right to defend itself by itself.”
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu said in a BBC interview there was now an opportunity to continue and toughen economic pressure against Tehran.
He said the current stalemate in the talks was a “lot better” than the deal that he said Iran was pushing for. That deal – which he described not as a “bad deal” but as a “horrible deal” – would have “left Iran with the ability to enrich uranium to an atom bomb while removing sanctions.“ The deal that the world should be pushing for, he added, is to “dismantle Iran’s capacity to make atomic bombs, and only then to dismantle the sanctions.”
Netanyahu dismissed Iran’s oft-heard argument that it has the natural right to enrich uranium, saying “there is no right to enrich. What do you need to enrich uranium for if you are not developing an atomic bomb?” Iran’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles is a clear sign that it is seeking nuclear weapons, the prime minister said. “The only reason you build ICBMs is to launch a nuclear warhead.
So Iran, I think everyone understands, is unabashedly seeking to develop atomic bombs.”
“And I think they shouldn’t have the capacity either to enrich uranium or to deliver nuclear warheads.
And I think that is the position the P5+1 should take,” he said.
One of the justifications for not taking that position was that to do so would “offend Iranian pride,” Netanyahu said.
“So what,” he said. “If this position was taken in the 1930s against Germany, it would have offended German pride but saved millions and millions of lives.”
The world must not give atomic bombs to “this medievalist regime in Iran that throws acid in the faces of women, that oppresses gays, that subjugates entire populations, that exports terrorism far and wide,” he said.
Netanyahu said that now, since an agreement was not reached, he hoped the pressure on Tehran would continue.
“The fact that there is no deal now means there is an opportunity to continue the economic pressure that has proven the only thing that has brought Iran to the table,” he said.
Advocating continuing and toughening the economic sanctions, Netanyahu said, “I think that is the road that has to be taken.”
US representatives involved in the talks in Vienna are expected to brief Jerusalem in the coming days on the negotiations.
One government official said there was real concern in Jerusalem that a deal was in the works that would have allowed Iran to enshrine its position as a threshold nuclear power.
“We’re hoping that the time now that has been given will be used to send a clear message to Tehran that nothing will suffice but the dismantlement of their nuclear weapons capabilities, and without that the sanctions will not be lifted,” he said.
Skeptical Republican members of Congress have suggested revisiting sanctions legislation against Iran, in the hopes that new restrictions will pressure Iran into concessions.
But the Obama administration has rejected previous efforts to trigger sanctions against Iran during the talks. In his last State of the Union address, Obama threatened to veto the latest suggested bill, penned by a Democrat.
At his press conference in Vienna, Kerry said he hoped Congress “will come to see the wisdom of leaving us the equilibrium of a few months.”
New legislation could be “misinterpreted” by Iran, he warned, and lead to “miscalculation.”
The interim Joint Plan of Action promises a hold on all new sanctions legislation from the United States but does not clarify whether passage through Congress, or a presidential signature, constitutes a violation.
Neither does the clause specify whether a bill that triggers new sanctions only should talks fail violates the agreement.
Negotiations will now continue at a lower political and technical level, toward a new deadline for a political framework by March and a comprehensive accord by July 2015.