- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2014

U.S. and Iranian officials appeared close on Sunday to extending the high-stakes talks over Iran’s disputed nuclear program after failing to meet a self-imposed deadline for a deal that would open the program to close international scrutiny in exchange for a withdrawal of crippling Western sanctions on Tehran.

While President Obama stopped short of saying the U.S. would agree to an extension in the now year-old talks, he suggested a comprehensive deal with Iran is simply out of reach before Monday’s deadline because “gaps” between U.S. and Iranian negotiators remain “significant.”

Mr. Obama, whose administration has pushed hard for such a deal despite aggressive resistance from Republicans and from Iran’s archenemy, Israel, signaled that Western powers may be willing to further ease sanctions on Tehran as talks continue.

But he said that a full-scale lifting of sanctions — something Iranian negotiators have held out for over the past year — cannot occur unless world powers are given clearer assurances that Tehran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon.

“Our goal has consistently been to shut off a whole bunch of different avenues whereby Iran might get a nuclear weapon, and at the same time make sure that the structure of sanctions are rolled back step for step as Iran is doing what it’s supposed to do,” the president said in an interview on ABC.

“I think Iran would love to see the sanctions end immediately, and then to still have some avenues that might not be completely closed,” he said. “We can’t do that.”

Mr. Obama’s comments came as diplomats at the nuclear talks in Vienna also suggested an extension was in the works.

Iran’s government-controlled Fars news agency said negotiators were likely to “discuss extending” the talks for “six to twelve months.”

Similar comments came from officials close to the so-called P5+1, the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France, plus Germany — negotiating with Iran.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told German television that without a comprehensive deal by Monday, negotiators “will have to search for possibilities to ensure the process can be continued.”

He and others, including U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, were reportedly weighing whether to push for a weekslong break in negotiations or to formally extend the talks with another self-imposed deadline sometime in 2015.

Unclear on Sunday night was whether such an extension would include similar perks for Iran that were attached to a preliminary agreement reached in the nuclear talks last year. Under the interim deal, Washington and the European Union agreed to ease some sanctions in exchange for a promise that Iran would reduce its uranium enrichment activities and open its nuclear facilities to U.N. inspectors.

Western powers originally leveled the sanctions after years of suspicion that Iran was clandestinely pursuing nuclear weapons in violation of U.N. regulations. Tehran has long denied this, claiming its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes.

While last year’s resumption of the nuclear talks was historic, resolution of the issue has proven elusive. The negotiations appeared doomed this month when the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog — the IAEA — said Iran was failing to provide inspectors with promised access to nuclear sites.

The assertion seemed to bolster the public warnings of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who asserts that Iran is dangerously close to “break out” capacity for a nuclear weapon and will not hesitate to use it on Israel.

Iranian officials, including the nation’s supreme religious leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei, have a history of making threatening statements toward Israel.

The Obama administration’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran has irked many Israeli officials, including Mr. Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister warned Sunday against leaving “Iran with that capacity to break out.”

“That would be a historic mistake, not only because it endangers my country, Israel, that Iran’s ruler, the Ayatollah Khamenei, vows to annihilate, because — but also because I think it would endanger the entire Middle East and the world,” Mr. Netanyahu said in an interview on ABC.


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