Report

Iran Nuclear Talks Drag Into Overtime

A tentative deal appears close, but may not carry much heft, as negotiators eye June for a final agreement.

P5+1 ministers, European Union and Iranian officials wait for the opening of a plenary session on Iran nuclear talks at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 30, 2015. The top diplomats of Iran and the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany aim by the end of March 31 to agree the outlines of a deal curtailing Iran's nuclear programme. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI        (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
P5+1 ministers, European Union and Iranian officials wait for the opening of a plenary session on Iran nuclear talks at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 30, 2015. The top diplomats of Iran and the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany aim by the end of March 31 to agree the outlines of a deal curtailing Iran's nuclear programme. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

A day after negotiators blew past a self-imposed deadline for reaching a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, top diplomats in Switzerland appeared ready to extend the talks for yet another day.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will continue huddling with his Iranian counterparts until at least Thursday morning, according to the State Department. “We continue to make progress, but have not reached a political understanding,” said spokeswoman Marie Harf. Key issues continue to divide six major powers and Tehran as they seek agreement on a political statement that would outline broads areas of agreement.

On Wednesday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said he expected negotiators to produce a “press statement” later in the day that would “announce progress in the negotiations.”

However, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who has taken a hard line with Tehran, returned to Paris because talks had not progressed enough for an “immediate deal,” in his view.

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 — aim to block Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon in exchange for sanctions relief. But as disagreements drag on, officials are now acknowledging that the talks could extend into Thursday.

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 Iran 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 been crippling its economy — something that may only happen with a comprehensive deal. “Iran needs this deal more than the international community needs this deal,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said on Wednesday. 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 Tuesday’s extension, 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.

Explaining the rationale for another day of talks, White House press secretary Josh Earnest 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.

“If we are making progress toward the finish line, then we should keep going,” Earnest told reporters at the daily White House press briefing on Tuesday.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

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