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Eleventh-Hour Push for Iranian Nuclear Deal as Deadline Approaches

Iran nuclear talks continued Sunday, although it remains unclear if a deal would be made ahead of a March 31 deadline.

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Nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers continued on Monday, and it remains unclear whether both sides would be able to reach a potentially historic agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear program as time ticks away before the end-of-the-month deadline.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry canceled a return trip to the United States and remained in Lausanne, Switzerland, in an eleventh-hour push to close a deal after 18 months of intense negotiations. Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were racing to meet a self-imposed March 31 deadline to agree on a framework for an agreement — the details of which would be settled later this summer. Also in Lausanne are the foreign ministers of France, Russia, China, and Germany. The European Union’s foreign-policy chief is also there.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sounded a cautious note when asked on Sunday whether he was optimistic that there would be a deal: “I’m not paid to be optimistic,” he said.

Reports from Lausanne indicate both sides are still negotiating the number of centrifuges Iran would be allowed to operate, as well as the possibility of limited uranium enrichment for medical purposes. Reuters reported Tehran was willing to cut its number of centrifuges — which are used to enrich uranium — to fewer than 6,000 and that negotiators are closing in on a brief document summarizing a preliminary deal. It’s not clear whether that document would be released publicly.

Highly enriched uranium is a necessary ingredient for a nuclear bomb — which is the root of global fears over Tehran’s nuclear program. Tehran insists it is not planning to build a bomb with its enriched uranium, and says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.

Iranian deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi announced on Sunday that Tehran refused to send large portions of its uranium stockpile out of the country. The two sides had previously operated under a tentative understanding that Iran would send its uranium to Russia, which would prevent it from being used in any drive to construct a nuclear bomb. U.S. officials responded by saying there never was an agreement that Iran would ship its uranium out of the country, and that there were other viable methods for ensuring Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium does not grow too large.

Iran and the world powers also appear to be grappling with two other controversial issues: Tehran’s ability to conduct research and development on more advanced centrifuges, and the speed with which sanctions against Iran will be lifted. Iran has accepted limitations on its development of new centrifuges, which could dramatically reduce the time it would take to purify the uranium necessary to build a nuclear bomb, for the first 10 years of the deal — but wants those restrictions to be eased after that period.

The issue of how sanctions will be removed is even more contentious. The Iranian side wants all sanctions, including the six U.N. Security Council resolutions, to be lifted at once following the conclusion of a deal. This position appears to be dictated by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: According to New York Times reporter Thomas Erdbrink, Khamenei’s personal website reiterated that “Sanctions must be lifted in one go, not as a result of future Iranian actions.”

Even though no accord has been reached, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, warned Sunday that Iran was attempting to “conquer the entire Middle East.”

“This deal, as it appears to be emerging, bears out all of our fears, and even more than that,” Netanyahu told his cabinet Sunday. “The Iran-Lausanne-Yemen axis is very dangerous to humanity, and must be stopped.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is also opposed to a deal, threatened new economic punishment if no agreement is struck. “The sanctions are going to come, and they’re going to come quick,” Boehner told CNN Sunday.

In 2010 and again in 2012, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Iran for violating international standards on its nuclear program. The European Union and the United Nations have also imposed tough sanctions against Iran. Together, the sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy and, in effect, forced Tehran into serious negotiations for the first time in years in hopes of easing the economic penalties.

Boehner is set to travel to Israel this week as the deadline looms in Lausanne.

Republicans have told U.S. President Barack Obama — and, in a letter, warned Iranian politicians — that any deal requires congressional approval. Some Democrats also want to sign off on a potential deal before it is ratified with Iran.

Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Adel al-Jubeir said on CBS’s Face the Nation he backed any deal that would have to close Iran’s path to nuclear weapons, “but we really will not know until we see the details and I don’t believe the details have been worked out yet.”

This round of negotiations between the United States, its allies — United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany — and Iran have been marked by a series of deadline extensions, which have allowed critics of the deal to rally opposition.

“We’ve been negotiating for more than a year and ultimately its time for the Iranians to send a clear signal to the international community about whether or not they are willing to make the serious commitments required and basically live up to their rhetoric that they are not trying to acquire a nuclear weapon,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on ABC’s This Week.

The negotiations have pushed ties between Washington and Jerusalem to historic lows. Netanyahu used a March address to Congress to lobby against the deal. Obama was so upset over the speech organized by Boehner — who did not consult with the White House before inviting the prime minister — that he refused to meet with Netanyahu during the visit. Since then, Israeli officials have circled the globe arguing against any agreement that would allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Israel, which is widely believed to have their own stash of nuclear weapons, is concerned about a wider arms race in the Middle East. Officials say Iranian hardliners would not abide by the terms of any deal. In the past, Jerusalem has hinted at the use of force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms.

Photo Credit: Brendan Smialowski

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