Vienna – by Nicolas Revise and Simon Sturdee (AFP)
Time runs out on Monday for the best chance in years to end the Iran nuclear crisis, as Tehran and six powers make a final push for a deal but with a extension looking increasingly likely.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the P5+1) have been locked in talks with Iran for months, seeking to turn an interim deal that expires at midnight (2300 GMT) on Monday into a lasting accord.
Such an agreement, after a 12-year standoff, is aimed at easing fears that Tehran will develop nuclear weapons under the guise of its civilian activities, an ambition it strongly denies.
It could see painful sanctions on Iran lifted, silence talk of war and represent a much-needed success for both US President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani.
“What a deal would do is take a big piece of business off the table and perhaps begin a long process in which the relationship not just between Iran and us but the relationship between Iran and the world, and the region, begins to change,” Obama said in an ABC News interview Sunday.
But a last-ditch diplomatic blitz in Vienna in recent days involving US Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers appears to have failed to bridge the remaining major differences.
As a result, late Sunday Iranian and US officials said they had started talking about plan B — the option of putting more time on the diplomatic clock.
A senior US official said it was “only natural that just over 24 hours from the deadline we are discussing a range of options … An extension is one of those options.”
An Iranian source told AFP that an extension was “discussed”.
“There is nothing concrete yet,” he added.
This came after Kerry met his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif for the sixth time since Thursday but again apparently failed to break the deadlock.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said however that the parties would still make a “big push tomorrow (Monday) morning to try and get this across the line”.
– Gaps –
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in the Austrian capital early Monday, completing the line-up of all the six powers’ foreign ministers including Laurent Fabius of France and Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
This included Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a key player in the talks. President Vladimir Putin was due to talk to Rouhani by phone later Monday, ITAR-TASS reported.
Diplomats on both sides say that despite some progress, the two sides remain far apart on the two crucial points of contention: uranium enrichment and sanctions relief.
Enriching uranium renders it suitable for peaceful purposes like nuclear power but also, at high purities, for the fissile core of a nuclear weapon.
Tehran wants to massively ramp up the number of enrichment centrifuges — in order, it says, to make fuel for a fleet of power reactors that it is however yet to build.
– Extension –
The West wants them dramatically reduced which together with more stringent UN inspections and an export of Iran’s uranium stocks would make any attempt to make the bomb all but impossible.
Iran wants painful UN and Western sanctions that have strangled its vital oil exports lifted, but the powers want to stagger any relief over a long period of time to ensure Iran complies with any deal.
In view of the difficulties, many experts have long believed that the negotiators would put more time on the clock, although how this might work is unclear.
The terms of 2013’s interim deal — under which Iran froze certain activities and got limited sanction relief — could be rolled over for a certain period of time.
Alternatively there could be a new interim deal or “political framework”, adding certain measures but leaving sanctions and enrichment until later.
An Iranian source told AFP on Sunday that the extension could be “six months or a year”.
Another extension — as happened with an earlier deadline of July 20 — however carries risks of its own, including possible fresh US sanctions that could lead Iran to walk away.
It will also fuel accusations from Israel, the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear-armed state, that its arch foe Iran is merely buying time to get closer to the bomb.
Arms Control Association analyst Kelsey Davenport told AFP that any extension “will have to be very short because there are too many hardliners, particularly in Washington and Tehran, that want to sabotage this deal”.