Secretary of State John Kerry said “tricky issues” remain to be resolved if diplomats are to meet their timetable and reach an outline agreement on Iran’s nuclear program by the end of Tuesday.
“We are working late into the night and obviously into tomorrow,” Kerry told CNN on Monday evening during a break in talks in Lausanne, Switzerland. “There is a little more light there today,” he said.
The effort to end a 12-year standoff with Iran enters deadline day with negotiators still divided over the pace of easing sanctions on Iran, and the limits to be imposed on its research to ensure it can’t obtain nuclear weapons.
A framework accord by March 31 would be a first step toward ending Iran’s economic isolation and allowing the country with the world’s fourth-biggest oil reserves to export freely again. An additional three months are envisaged for reaching a detailed final agreement.
Talks are stuck on how to roll back the sanctions that have slashed Iran’s oil output, and how to re-impose them should Iran violate the agreement, a European diplomat who spoke on condition of not being identified said on Monday. Both sides are playing a high-stakes game of chicken and the situation was changing hour-by-hour, the negotiator said.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has demanded the immediate end of sanctions. Western powers have proposed lifting United Nations sanctions over four to six years, while other curbs may remain in place for as long as a decade, according to two people involved in the talks.
If no deal is reached on Tuesday, “we have to look at the path forward,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday. She said no decision has been made on how to dispose of much of Iran’s enriched uranium, a key element in ensuring that the nuclear program is peaceful.
The six powers negotiating with Iran would prefer that the uranium, which is used to fabricate fuel for power plants and a medical reactor, be transferred to a guarantor nation, though other options are being discussed, the European diplomat said.
One indicator that a deal may be within reach on Tuesday would be the return of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov left the talks on Monday for a Moscow meeting with the foreign minister of the Pacific Island of Vanuatu. He would come back only if there’s a “realistic” prospect of a deal, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi sounded an optimistic note, saying that “the scale of disagreement has shrunk” as diplomats enter what he likened to the final sprint of their marathon.
A failure of the talks would be a blow to President Barack Obama, who has backed two years of negotiations with Iran despite domestic opposition. Republicans and many Democrats in Congress say they agree with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s argument that the emerging accord is dangerous.
“In Lausanne, they are closing their eyes,” Netanyahu’s office said Monday. “But we are not closing our eyes and we will continue to act against every threat.”
In Iran, hard-liners issued a last-ditch warning to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, telling him not to make concessions that cross the Islamic Republic’s red lines.
It’s unacceptable for a deal to keep UN sanctions in place, or require Iran to make irrevocable commitments while the other side’s steps could be reversed, said Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of the conservative Kayhan newspaper.
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