- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Iranian negotiators said Wednesday that they are holding out for a full-scale termination of sanctions and accused the U.S. and its allies of lacking the “political will” to go along with the demand, as talks on Iran’s nuclear programs were extended a second day amid signs that a deal may be further off than the Obama administration is willing to acknowledge.

The comments were played prominently in Iranian media, suggesting that top officials in Tehran were positioning to frame a potential breakdown in negotiations as the fault of the Obama administration and its international allies at the bargaining table in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Officials from all sides said progress was still being made a day after the self-imposed Tuesday deadline, but Seyed Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s deputy lead negotiator, asserted that Tehran’s demand for the removal of economic sanctions as well as the U.S.-backed embargo on Iranian crude oil is unwavering.

“We insist that all the economic, financial and crude sanctions be canceled in the first step of the agreement and a specific framework be drawn for [the removal of] those embargoes,” Mr. Araqchi told Iran’s state-run TV Channel One, according to the semi-official FARS news service in Tehran.

The U.S. has rejected an immediate lifting of all sanctions, saying it would remove any leverage to ensure Iran did not cheat on its commitments to curb its nuclear programs down the line.

Speaking before U.S. officials announced that negotiations would carry into an eighth exhausting day in Lausanne, Mr. Araqchi said “progress has been made with regard to the removal of the sanctions, but it is not complete yet.”

Secretary of State John F. Kerry postponed his departure from Lausanne for a second time in pursuit of an agreement that has eluded world powers for more than a decade.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters that Mr. Kerry, along with top diplomats from Britain, France, China, Russia, Germany and Iran, struggled during repeated sessions Wednesday to reach a “political understanding” that could stand as an outline for a final deal in June.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier suggested that the talks could carry on right up to that deadline. Although he offered no specifics, Mr. Steinmeier said a “tough struggle” was at play and that there would be “new proposals” on the table. “I can’t predict whether that will [be] sufficient to enable an agreement,” he said.

At the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif asserted that Western parties in the talks, including the U.S., Germany, Britain and France, are to blame for the failure to reach a final deal.

“Progress in talks depends on political will,” Mr. Zarif told reporters in Lausanne, according to FARS. “The opposite party’s political will has always been in trouble.”

Asked whether progress had been made on the specific standoff over sanctions relief, he said the negotiations have become “very difficult,” but there is still hope.

Make-or-break point?

The talks seem to be at a make-or-break point after an aggressive push by the Obama administration for a breakthrough that could prevent a military confrontation with Iran over its disputed nuclear program. Iran insists the program is peaceful, but Washington and its allies for more than a decade have accused Tehran of running a clandestine nuclear weapons development operation.

Officials have said the goal of this week’s talks was to produce a broadly worded document outlining commitments toward a final deal that would ease Western concerns over Iran’s program in exchange for relief of economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy in recent years. There was also a push to fashion other documents that would lay out in more detail the steps that Iran and the other powers — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany — must take by June 30 for a final deal to take shape.

But Iran seemed to be pushing back Wednesday on the substance of the commitments the sides must make and the form in which they will make them, demanding that any statement out of Lausanne have few specifics. That could pose even more political problems for the Obama administration, which must convince a deeply skeptical Congress that it has made progress in the talks so lawmakers do not enact more sanctions that could undermine the negotiations.

Mr. Zarif said Wednesday that the result of this week’s talks “will not be more than a statement.”

The Obama administration and its allies reportedly have pushed for a “phased relief,” but Iran wants all sanctions lifted from the start. Washington, Paris and Berlin are also said to favor a deal that could allow U.N. sanctions on Iran’s economy and military to be automatically reimposed if Tehran obstructs international weapons inspectors or violates any other terms of the deal.

Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported Tuesday that Russia and China are believed to disagree with those terms, instead favoring a scenario in which the U.N. Security Council would have to vote on appropriate punishments if Tehran is caught cheating.

Critics of the Obama administration’s handling of the nuclear talks say the focus on sanctions is a distraction that the Iranians are pushing as a way to extend the negotiations while Tehran proceeds with its nuclear activities.

John R. Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador and weapons control negotiator and now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Wednesday that there is “no evidence that sanctions have actually slowed down Iran’s nuclear buildup.”

Mr. Bolton, who has long argued in favor of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites, said during a panel discussion hosted by the American Enterprise Institute that it is “fundamentally false” to think economic sanctions can “solve the Iranian nuclear problem.”

Iran is well on its way to nuclear buildup, regardless of whatever economic sanctions the U.S. or Western forces place on the regime,” he said.

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