US says talks with Iran will go down to the wire

Deal will be a multiphase process; form of political framework undecided • Russian FM: "Not paid to be optimistic"

March 29, 2015 22:32
4 minute read.
Zarif Lausanne

Zarif talks with his delegation in Lausanne, March 29, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- The American delegation negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program will use all the time at its disposal to seal a quality political framework agreement— but no more, one senior US official said on Sunday.

US President Barack Obama has asked for a "big-picture" political understanding by March 31, or else an assessment of the path forward. Senior administration officials expect negotiations to last until late into Tuesday night, but plan to reassess that path if a deal has not been reached at that point, the official said.

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A host of small issues remain outstanding in the negotiations, in which world powers— the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany, known as the P5+1— seek to cap, restrict, monitor and partially roll back Iran's nuclear program for a finite period. Without elaborating on the nature of those challenges, negotiators said they expect small gaps to close quickly once bigger gaps are finally bridged.

Less than 48 hours before the deadline, those larger gaps still appear sizable to the US team. Limits on Iran's research and development, its acknowledgment of past nuclear weapons experimentation and the pace with which the United Nations would lift sanctions are among the issues still challenging negotiators.

The deal under the pen will be a multiphase process, with various conditions expiring at different paces. Negotiators are currently focused on restrictive provisions that will last up to 11 to 15 years.

Diplomats here at the Beau Rivage Palace, perched on the edge of the Swiss Riviera, grew in number on Sunday leading up to the deadline. The foreign ministers of Russia and Britain arrived, rounding out the permanent UN Security Council members represented here at the highest levels.

All sounded notes of optimism that a deal may soon be reached amenable to their governments, though Russia's top envoy, Sergey Lavrov, quipped: "I'm not paid to be optimistic."

"You're not paid enough to be optimistic," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in response, entering a meeting with fellow P5+1 colleagues.

Iranian negotiators also sounded upbeat, granting several interviews to their own press corps. One outlet reported that Iran may be willing to disconnect over 4,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges, leaving the country with less than 6,000 operable machines.

But in exchange, the US has reportedly conceded the use of centrifuges in Fordow, a facility covertly built and burrowed inside a mountain. Asked by The Jerusalem Post whether the reports are accurate, one senior US official here declined to comment.

"We don't know enough, clearly. But there is this bizarre situation in which there's this inevitability that something's going to happen, alongside this great uncertainty," Trita Parsi, founder and current president of the National Iranian American Council, said in an interview. "The cost of failure at this stage is so high— the cost of political embarrassment."

Officials here say they have not yet decided on the format a political framework would take should one be reached, though State Department lawyers insist on calling the document an "understanding."

The administration doubts it will be a long document, but acknowledges that an agreement will have to present clear evidence to the American public— and its representatives on Capitol Hill— that everything agreed to is sound, substantive American policy.

Should a deal be reached, negotiators may travel an hour west to Geneva to announce the agreement from a UN facility. A comprehensive nuclear accord— sure to be a long, technical document— will likely be signed formally in Vienna in June.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu renewed his criticism of the deal under discussion here in Lausanne, warning that negotiations were producing an agreement "even worse" than Jerusalem had predicted.

"This deal, as it appears to be emerging, bears out all of our fears, and even more than that," Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday.

Asked whether Israel had been briefed on the progress made in this current round of negotiations, the same senior US official said that Netanyahu's views were well known to the administration. The US team had briefed Israel's national security advisor as recently as Thursday, the official said.

In the past, Israel has warned that a nuclear deal may corner the Jewish state, but will not bind its hands should it determine that an agreement compromises its existence.

Kerry had planned to travel back to Massachusetts, his home state, for the dedication ceremony of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, named in honor of his late friend and colleague.

He, as well as German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, have canceled travel plans through March 31 in the expectation that talks will go down to the wire.

"I can't rule out that there will be further crises in these negotiations," Steinmeier said, speaking to reporters outside the palace. Similar refrains were issued by American and Iranian diplomats, paired with optimism that a deal may be at hand.

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