- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Blowing through a self-imposed deadline, negotiators from Iran, the U.S. and five allied powers labored into the night trying to hammer out an outline toward a final deal to curb Iran’s nuclear programs, but Obama administration officials said talks will carry on into Wednesday in the hope that a stalemate can be broken on “several difficult issues.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters at the talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, that top diplomats from the U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia, Germany and Iran had “made enough progress” to “merit staying until Wednesday,” past the original midnight Tuesday deadline for a deal.

Late Tuesday, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters in Switzerland that “for the majority of issues, solutions have been completely found” and that an agreement should be drafted starting Wednesday.

But White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the talks were aiming for an interim agreement with few specifics, accompanied by other papers detailing the issues still needing resolved. “If we are making progress toward the finish line, then we should keep going,” he said.

While resistance to a deal has been fierce from Republicans and some Democrats in Washington, the talks have reached a make-or-break point this week after nearly 12 years of stagnation and an exhaustive push by the White House for a breakthrough that could prevent a military confrontation with Iran over its disputed nuclear programs.

Tehran insists its nuclear operations peaceful, but Washington and its allies have for more than a decade accused Iran of running a clandestine program to develop a nuclear bomb. Iran is demanding an end to crippling international economic sanctions as its price for a deal.

Officials on the sidelines of this week’s talks have suggested that all sides are close to producing broadly-worded outline that could allow negotiations to continue toward a June 30 final deadline — but without many of the specifics that some had been hoping for.

With oil prices dropping toward $55 a barrel Tuesday, the global energy market seemed to be bracing to the announcement of a deal that could see a lifting of the U.S.-led embargo on Iranian crude. Such a development could push prices even lower as it would increase supply to the world market.

But tension was reportedly thick in the negotiations Tuesday as the talks ground past a previously agreed to March 31 pre-deadline deadline.

At midday, Iranian state media reported that the negotiations were carrying on, but slowly. And since they’re being held under a cloak of secrecy in Switzerland, details on the terms of a potential deal remained unconfirmed.

Claiming to have obtained a draft version of the deal two weeks ago, The Associated Press reported that Western powers were haggling over whether to allow Iran to retain some 6,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment — a process that can lead to nuclear weapons-grade material — as part of a deal that would last 10 years.

Officials have reportedly leaked details of other last-minute sticking points in the talks, including the length the proposed deal and the timing of the end of sanctions. While Iran reportedly agrees with the 10-year time frame, France and other nations are said to want a deal lasting at least 15 years.

The question of sanctions relief continues to be debated. The Obama administration and its allies have reportedly pushed for a so-called “phased relief.” But Iranian negotiators are said to be holding out for a deal that would see broad-based relief from the start.

The U.S. and other Western powers in the talks are also said to favor a deal that could seen U.N. sanctions on Iran’s economy and military reimposed automatically if Tehran is blocks U.N. weapons inspectors from its nuclear sites — or violating any other terms of a potential deal.

But Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) 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 future punishments if Iran violated the deal.

Still, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters on Monday that the prospects for breakthrough in the ongoing talks “were not bad.”

“I would even say good,” Mr. Lavrov said, according to The Associated Press.

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