Report

Talks on the Rocks

Negotiations may go into double overtime as stubborn differences between Iran and world powers persist.

US Secretary of State John Kerry looks out of the window of his room at the Beau-Rivage Palace hotel during a break in Iran nuclear talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 1, 2015. Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi said on April 1 that "problems" remain in nuclear talks with world powers and that there can be no deal without a "framework for the removal of all sanctions". AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI        (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry looks out of the window of his room at the Beau-Rivage Palace hotel during a break in Iran nuclear talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 1, 2015. Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi said on April 1 that "problems" remain in nuclear talks with world powers and that there can be no deal without a "framework for the removal of all sanctions". AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

World powers struggled to maintain momentum Wednesday as talks to limit Iran’s nuclear program limped along. But diplomats refused to give up despite a recurring cycle of fits and starts over even a tentative deal that has remained elusive.

Having already blown one deadline on March 31, negotiators appeared ready to extend the talks into Thursday. And after shelving the delicate discussions earlier Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius headed back to Switzerland from Paris hours later to reclaim his seat at the table.

“We continue to make progress, but have not reached a political understanding,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. Foggy Bottom said Secretary of State John Kerry will continue huddling with his Iranian counterparts until at least Thursday morning.

Key issues continue to divide six major powers and Tehran as they seek agreement on a political statement outlining broad areas of mutual understanding.

Earlier Wednesday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said he expected officials to produce a “press statement” that would “announce progress in the negotiations.” However, European and American officials have insisted that significant gaps between the two sides remain, and the likelihood of a Wednesday agreement appeared remote. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told the BBC that “we have a broad framework for understanding, but there are still some key issues that have to be worked through.”

The six major powers — the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China — are offering Iran relief from years of harsh international sanctions in exchange for limits on Tehran’s nuclear program that would keep it from building an atomic bomb.

U.S. officials have repeatedly refused to enumerate the specific points of disagreement between Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries, but leaked reports from the talks have focused on four main points of contention. They include: how quickly U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran will be lifted in the event of a deal; how fast Tehran will be permitted to develop its nuclear technology in the final years of an agreement; where Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium should be stored; and the type of penalty system for holding Iran accountable in the event that it violates the terms of the deal.

“The Iranians say they would like all the sanctions removed almost immediately,” Bob Einhorn, a former member of the Obama administration’s negotiating team, said Wednesday. “The U.S. position is that sanctions must be phased out over time.”

Iran and the world powers had hoped to reach a political agreement on the nuclear talks by the end of March, but left themselves until June 30, 2015, to secure a final comprehensive deal. In recent days, it became increasingly clear among the nations involved that the soft March deadline was most important to American negotiators, who want to deliver an agreement before a skeptical U.S. Congress imposes new economic penalties on Tehran.

Still, in the long run, Tehran wants to remove the international sanctions that have crippled its economy — something that may only happen with a comprehensive deal. “Iran needs this deal more than the international community needs this deal,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution. However, she emphasized that the country’s leaders would not strike a deal at any cost, and are prepared to restructure their economy in the event that they can’t get sanctions relief. “They have a Plan B,” she said. “They are prepared to go forward in that direction.”

American lawmakers have repeatedly warned that they will take up new sanctions legislation on Iran if there is no tentative deal this week. In response to the newest extension this week, freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) blasted the Obama administration for continuing the negotiations. “The best solution is walk away from the nuclear negotiations now and return to a position of strength,” he said in a statement.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest has said it doesn’t make sense to abruptly end the negotiations at this juncture if the United States continued to have “serious engagement” with the Iranians.

“As long as we are in a position of convening serious talks that are making progress … we would not arbitrarily or abruptly end them,” Earnest told reporters on Wednesday.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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