An agreement on Iran’s nuclear program remained out of reach Monday, as negotiators from the Obama administration, its allies and Tehran discussed a host of last-minute issues ahead of Tuesday night’s deadline for a final accord.
Officials close to the talks said Iranian negotiators began insisting Monday that all U.N. sanctions, including those blocking Iran from buying ballistic missiles, be lifted as part of a final deal, but the U.S. and its allies stood together in refusal, asserting that certain embargoes on Iranian weapon purchases must remain in place.
In Washington, Obama administration officials said they hope negotiators can resolve such disputes while securing a final deal to curb Iran’s yearslong nuclear research in exchange for relief from sanctions on Iranian oil and banking that have damaged the Islamic republic’s economy.
But the apparent deadlock in the talks brought unease at the State Department, where officials reiterated threats by President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry to “walk away” from the negotiations if it looks like a final deal would overly favor the Iranians.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose nation is not among the negotiators, made headlines by reiterating his own long-standing claim that the West is caving to Iranian demands.
“Every day more concessions are made, and every day the deal becomes worse and worse,” Mr. Netanyahu said at a press conference in Israel, asserting that the nuclear talks in Vienna are undergoing “not a breakthrough, but more like a breakdown.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby disputed the prime minister’s remarks.
“First of all, there’s no deal right now,” Mr. Kirby said. “And I’ve said, Secretary Kerry’s willing to walk away if the right deal cannot be had.
“To characterize breakthroughs or breakdowns would be inaccurate based on what we know of the scope and the pace and the character of the conversations that are going on right now in the negotiating room,” the spokesman said.
Mr. Kirby also suggested that the Obama administration stands firmly against any sanctions relief relating to Iranian weapons purchases. “The only sanctions that are in play are those related to Iran’s nuclear program,” he said.
On Sunday, Mr. Kerry told reporters in Vienna that he agreed with public statements by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that “we have never been closer” to a final accord, but that “difficult issues” still need resolving and the negotiations could “go either way.”
Mr. Lavrov engaged in one-on-one talks Monday with Mr. Zarif in Vienna, according to Russian news reports, which quoted the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying “a mutual desire to find as soon as possible mutually acceptable solutions on disputed issues was expressed.”
It was unclear Monday whether the Obama administration might agree to push back the already extended deadline for a deal beyond Tuesday night.
‘Difficult to accept’
Negotiators blew through last week’s deadline, prolonging some 20 months of closed-door talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 — the U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany.
Analysts said so much time has been invested that no side wants to abandon the pursuit of a deal, but the deadline extension last week prompted speculation that Iran may be dragging out the talks for as long as the U.S. and its negotiating partners will allow before ultimately scuttling a final accord.
Tehran has long insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful, civilian purposes such as power generation. But the U.S. and its European allies have accused Tehran for more than a decade of secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons in violation of U.N. regulations.
Continuing to extend the deadline, meanwhile, may have political ramifications in Washington: It would push up against the date for Congress to review and vote on a final accord. If the deal is delivered to Capitol Hill by Thursday, the review period will be 30 days. After that, the review period doubles to 60 days.
It was not clear Monday whether negotiators had overcome any of the other disputes said to be blocking a final deal.
One has centered on whether inspectors from the U.N. nuclear watchdog — the International Atomic Energy Agency — will be allowed access to Iranian military sites and to interview Iranian nuclear scientists as part of the deal to ensure that the Islamic republic is not secretly building a nuclear bomb.
U.S. lawmakers have demanded that such access be part of a final deal, and the Obama administration knows congressional approval will be more difficult to win without it.
But Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has stated his personal opposition to inspections of any non-nuclear sites, and the nation’s parliament last week pushed through legislation calling for U.N. inspectors to be banned from all military sites and barred from access to certain nuclear scientists and documents in the final deal.
Citing officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the news agency quoted one Western official as saying, “The Iranians want the ballistic missile sanctions lifted. They say there is no reason to connect it with the nuclear issue, a view that is difficult to accept.
“There’s no appetite for that on our part,” the official said.
Reuters said Iranian and Western officials confirmed the view.
One Iranian official said, “The Western side insists that not only should [the ballistic missile program] remain under sanctions, but that Iran should suspend its program as well,” according to Reuters.
Separately, a senior Iranian official told reporters in Vienna on the condition of anonymity that Tehran wants a U.N. arms embargo terminated as well, a demand that a senior Western diplomat told Reuters is “out of the question.”
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