VIENNA – Another deadline for an historic international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program – the second of its kind in a single week – greets negotiators here in Austria on Tuesday. But entering the very last moment of a long, critical hour, a final deal appeared just as elusive as it was seven days ago.All parties to the talks insist that significant progress has been made, that a nuclear deal is largely written and that negotiations – in their very last stage – now concern the margins of a deal. Much already has been agreed, and all parties hope to reach a comprehensive and shared text in the next day, if not by the end of this week.Western governments say the margins of each and every issue are critical. But while some delegates fear the urge to rush and adopt an agreement for the sake of a deadline, both US Secretary of State John Kerry and the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, insist that now is the time to close a deal or walk away.The United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany presented a united front entering Monday’s meetings. Their foreign ministers took negotiations into the night.
Three sessions took place throughout the day among them, typically preceding meetings with their Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.Kerry met once again with Zarif during the course of the day.Yet “significant differences” still remained, according to one Iranian official. That was the takeaway from the day’s second plenary, which reportedly focused on the language of a United Nations Security Council resolution that will lift sanctions on Iran. Tehran wants the Security Council to lift all sanctions on its country – those directly targeting its nuclear work, as well as those punishing its ballistic missile development.On this demand, the US is currently refusing to compromise.“There’s no appetite for that on our part,” one Western official said. “They say there is no reason to connect it with the nuclear issue, a view that is difficult to accept.”Intercontinental ballistic missiles are primarily designed to deliver nuclear warheads.“We should not underestimate that important questions remain unresolved,” said one German diplomat. “There will not be an agreement at any cost.”“If there is no movement on decisive points,” he continued, “a failure is not ruled out.”Kerry said on Sunday that July 7 – the date when the Joint Plan of Action, an interim nuclear deal, expires – is the deadline for the United States. But the White House is now suggesting it will let the deadline slip a few days.“I would say that’s certainly possible,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. The US Congress has set its own deadline, July 10, when it expects to have a nuclear agreement in full to review for 30 days. Past that date, Congress will have double that time to review the document.The world powers seek to cap, restrict, monitor and partially roll back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, after toiling with the prospect of a nuclear Iran for over a decade. Tehran wants that relief immediately.
Michael Wilner reports on nuclear talks from Vienna