The Obama administration and its negotiating partners blew through Tuesday’s self-imposed deadline for a major nuclear accord with Iran — prolonging for at least another week some 20 months of exhausting and convoluted closed-door talks that have capped more than a decade of brinkmanship between Tehran and the West.
While most analysts say the deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief remains in reach, the last-minute extension triggered fresh speculation that Iran’s leaders 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.
President Obama insisted again Tuesday that he was not wedded to an agreement at any cost and threatened outright to “walk away” if Iran reneges on the parameters of an April interim agreement in Lausanne, Switzerland, with the so-called P5+1 negotiating group that also comprises Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany.
“There has been a lot of talk on the other side from the Iranian negotiators about whether, in fact, they can abide by some of the terms that came up in Lausanne,” Mr. Obama told reporters at a White House press conference with visiting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. “If they cannot, that’s going to be a problem because I’ve said from the start, I will walk away from the negotiations if, in fact, it’s a bad deal.”
The latest round of talks are being held behind closed doors in Vienna, making it nearly impossible to know for sure what may be preventing a breakthrough to a final deal. Analysts close to the process say the P5+1 has been clear about what Iran must do for sanctions to be rolled back but Tehran has waffled on a number of fronts.
State Department officials called the extension of talks a technical matter needed to nail down details of an agreement, not a sign that the provisional deal was crumbling.
Those preliminary measures have been extended to Tuesday “to allow more time for negotiations to reach a long-term solution,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
In addition to disagreements over the type of nuclear research that Iran will be allowed to conduct once a final deal is signed, there are also said to be divisions over the speed at which sanctions relief will be granted. More pointedly, there is believed to be a major impasse on the question of whether inspectors from the U.N. nuclear watchdog group, the International Atomic Energy Agency, will be allowed to access Iranian military sites and to interview the nation’s nuclear scientists.
Specific conditions for such inspections were left unresolved under April’s interim agreement. Western negotiators were hoping that Iran’s leaders wanted sanctions relief and an end to international isolation so badly that they would accept more intrusive inspection rules.
But Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has stated personal opposition to inspections of any non-nuclear sites, and the nation’s elected 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.
Iranian negotiators offered more mixed signals Tuesday. Returning to Vienna after a round of meetings in Tehran, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told reporters that the nuclear talks had reached a “very sensitive stage” but that progress remained possible.
Asked by a reporter about his day of meetings at home, he said: “I already had a mandate to negotiate, and I am here to get a final deal, and I think we can.”
He returned with Iranian atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi, who missed earlier sessions because of illness. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov joined the gathering later Tuesday.
But analysts cautioned against reading too deeply into Mr. Zarif’s remarks.
“One of the things that may be happening here — and we can only speculate because we’re not in the room — is that the Iranians at a certain level may be concluding that they have supreme leverage at this stage,” said Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based nuclear policy analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mr. Hibbs said he supports the talks, but warned that Tehran’s overall posture appears to have grown more resistant since April.
“The Iranians,” he said, “may have concluded that the U.S., and particularly the Obama administration, is so deeply invested in this at this point that U.S. negotiators simply cannot afford to say no.”
The decision to extend the talks, Mr. Hibbs said, allows U.S. negotiators to “ferret out one way or another whether the Iranian hardening we’ve seen over the past several weeks is simply a last-minute effort by Iran to pull the best deal they can, or if the Iranian position is that they’re truly convinced that they don’t have to make concessions and that the U.S. will blink.”
Others were less circumspect.
“Certainly, both sides want to make sure that they have a deal that they can bring back domestically and garner support for and some of these decisions do require concessions,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “Ultimately, though, I think these are resolvable issues and they’ll be able to close the gaps in the final weeks and reach a comprehensive deal.”
Her view appeared to be supported Tuesday by reports that the IAEA concluded that Iran significantly reduced its stocks of enriched uranium, meeting a key condition of any final deal.
Iran has long insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful, civilian purposes such as power generation. But the U.S. and its European allies in the P5+1 have for more than a decade accused Tehran of secretly developing nuclear weapons in violation of U.N. regulations.
Extending the nuclear deal deadline to Tuesday, meanwhile, may have political ramifications in Washington because it will push the Obama administration against the date in agreement with Congress to allow lawmakers to review and vote on whether to accept any final accord. If the deal is delivered to Capitol Hill by July 9, the review period will be 30 days; after that, the review period doubles to 60 days.
Tuesday’s developments prompted fresh warnings from Republican leaders.
“President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry should use the opportunity to pause negotiations, take a step back and re-examine the point of the talks in the first place,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, wrote in an op-ed posted on the website of Politico on Tuesday afternoon.
Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, said that, “rather than rush to meet politically driven deadlines, the White House should work cooperatively with Congress to increase pressure for Iran to accept a stronger deal.”