West hopes for a breakthrough as deadline arrives with Iran

US: "No idea" what day will bring; Russian foreign minister leaves dissatisfied.

March 31, 2015 00:11
4 minute read.

Kerry waits prior to a meeting in Lausanne March 30, 2015. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland – A pivotal deadline has arrived for diplomats on the shores of Lake Geneva with no clear breakthrough in talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

After two years of intensive negotiations with the United States, and over a decade of talks with Europe, Iran is facing crucial decisions over its future, Western negotiators declared in Lausanne.

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The foreign ministers of Germany, France, China and Britain expressed hope that the moment might produce a historic outcome, while the US remained cautious, and Russia’s foreign minister left the country.

Moscow is keeping stern on the mechanism with which the United Nations Security Council would lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for permanent actions by Tehran rolling back its nuclear program, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov left his counterparts on Monday warning that a instituting a "snap back" mechanism on any sanctions lift would set a dangerous Security Council precedent.
Paris has expressed near converse concerns, hoping to keep sanctions in place and fixed for a longer period. And a US official acknowledged in conversation with the Post the political difficulties of Iran’s request.Tehran seeks the elimination of all UN and EU sanctions early on during the life of a nuclear deal, which will commit Iran to restrictions lasting up to 15 years.

World powers seek to cap, restrict, monitor and partially roll back Iran’s nuclear work for a finite period, ensuring that its program remains exclusively peaceful. Iran intends on keeping its program intact and wants all sanctions related to that program quickly removed.

Meetings between the delegations grew shorter, some as brief as 20 minutes, as the talks inched closer to the March 31 deadline. The parties seek a political understanding by the end of Wednesday that will frame a larger, comprehensive nuclear accord reached by June 30.

Asked by the Post outside the Beau-Rivage Palace, facing the Swiss Alps, whether talks had progressed on Tuesday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that they had.

“We have made progress,” he said.

Later in the day, Wang told reporters that “positions are narrowing.”

But China’s state-run news agency nevertheless reported that, since reporting progress the day before, the mood had turned from “optimism” to “gloom.”

“There is a little more light there today,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN’s Elise Labott on Tuesday night.

“But there are still some tricky issues. Everyone knows the meaning of tomorrow.”

Indeed, March 31 has become a date certain for US President Barack Obama, despite the fact that world powers only technically agreed to June 30 as a set deadline.

“The issues don’t get easier after March 31,” State Department acting spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Tuesday.

Harf said she had “no idea” what might come of the next day.

“So much can change in the next 36 hours,” she said.

Iran, for its part, backed off statements of optimism expressed over the last week.

“Our negotiating team are trustworthy and compassionate officials who are working hard, but they should be careful with the enemies’ deceptive and skillful tactics,” Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told state-run media.

Beyond the political concerns over quickly lifting sanctions on Iran at the UN, negotiators are still wrestling with the technical challenge of monitoring Iran’s research and development into nuclear various technologies.

Nor have world powers settled with Iran how best to handle its existing stockpile of enriched uranium. Negotiators have not even reached a tentative agreement on that matter, US officials said, after Iran renewed its rejection of removing its stockpile to Russia for conversion.

“You don’t have to ship it out of the country to get to a year breakout time,” Harf said, suggesting alternative paths may be available.

“You can have some other dispositions for it that get us where we need to be in terms of our bottom line.”

Negotiators seem less focused on issues that have historically challenged them: How best to handle Fordow, a nuclear facility covertly built inside a mountain, and the number of uranium- enriching centrifuges Iran will be allowed to retain.

Discussions continue on which provisions will last between 11 and 15 years. Each requirement of Iran will have a unique expiration date, US officials say.

In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued his criticism of the deal under the pen here in Switzerland.

“Iran stands to gain by its aggression,” Netanyahu said, referring to recent developments in Yemen and Iran’s support of rebel Houthi militia.

The Obama administration last briefed Netanyahu’s team on Thursday, at the beginning of this latest round, on the progress of the talks.

Speaking to the European Parliament earlier in the day, EU counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove seemed to reinforce the prime minister’s perspective. A deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions would impact the regional, sectarian struggle, he said.

“Of course, because Iran will have even more money,” Kerchove said. “It is a sophisticated country, with a vision, more and more powerful in the Middle East, and therefore on the Sunni side there might be a temptation for some to support extremist groups to fight against Iran by proxy.”

But Harf, too, spoke to Iran’s role in Yemen, stating that its activity in the region reinforced the need for a negotiated settlement that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear arms.

The midnight deadline, she said, is not unique to Swiss time; diplomats expect to work well into the night.

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