Conflicting reports emerge over Iran nuclear deal as deadline extended

Wendy Sherman, Kerry, Moniz

From left, US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Sherman, US Secretary of State Kerry and US Secretary of Energy Moniz wait to start a meeting. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

As conflicting reports emerge from Lausanne regarding progress on an Iran nuclear deal, the March 31 deadline for a framework agreement was extended by one day. 

Conflicting reports are emerging from the nuclear talks in Lausanne, Switzerland over an Iran nuclear deal, as the deadline for a framework deal with Iran has come and gone. The Iranians and Russians are claiming that an agreement has been reached, while Western officials maintain that crucial issues remain unresolved.

Enough progress had been made to warrant the extension past midnight Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said, although there still were “several difficult issues” to bridge.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who had planned to leave the talks on Tuesday, stayed on, while an Iranian negotiator said that his team could stay “as long as necessary” to clear the remaining hurdles.

This is the situation after six days of marathon efforts to reach a preliminary understanding by midnight Tuesday, drawing in foreign ministers from all seven nations at the table — Iran, Russia, the United States, China, Britain, France and Germany.

After more than a decade of diplomatic efforts to limit Tehran’s nuclear advances, the current talks were already extended twice, demonstrating the difficulties of reaching an agreement that meets the demands of both sides.

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The US and its negotiating partners are demanding curbs on Iranian nuclear activities, saying that any agreement must extend the time that Tehran would need to produce a nuclear weapon – from the present several months to at least a year. The Iranians, while negotiating for a deal that would end sanctions on their economy, deny such military intentions.

In a sign of confusion surrounding the talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed there was agreement on all sides. That statement was quickly contradicted by a Western diplomat.

Late Tuesday, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, “For the majority of issues, solutions have been completely found.” Drafting of an agreement should begin Wednesday, he added.

A diplomat close to the talks denied that such an agreement had been reached. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius left the talks, saying he would return from France when it was “useful”.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest suggested that the talks – meant to produce an outline that would allow the sides to continue negotiations until the June 30 final deadline – have not bridged all gaps. He said the sides were working to produce a text with few specifics, accompanied by documents outlining areas where further talks were needed.

“If we are making progress toward the finish line, then we should keep going,” Earnest said. President Barack Obama held a closed-door video conference Tuesday night with Kerry and other members of his national security team, including Vice-President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

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Officials had hoped to wrap up the current talks by Tuesday night with a joint general statement, agreeing to start a new phase of negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program. That statement would be accompanied by more detailed documents that would include technical information on understandings of steps required on all sides to resolve outstanding concerns.

Parts of any understanding reached by the parties will likely remain confidential for the foreseeable future.

Obama Faces Critics at Home and Abroad

If the parties agree only to a broad framework, leaving key details unresolved, Obama can expect strong opposition at home from members of Congress who want to move forward with new, stiffer Iran sanctions. Lawmakers had agreed to hold off on such a measure through March while the parties negotiated.

Obstacles remain on several main issues — uranium enrichment, where stockpiles of enriched uranium should be stored, limits on Iran’s nuclear research and development and the timing and scope of sanctions, among other concerns, according to negotiators.

Tom Cotton

Senator Cotton. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Critics will likely accuse the Obama administration of backing away from promises of a tougher March agreement.

Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) said on Tuesday that extending the talks “proves once again that Iran is calling the shots.” He said the Obama administration has made “dangerous concessions” to the Iranians over the past week, though he did not specify them.

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Addressing the opening of the 20th Knesset on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the negotiations in Lausanne “pave the way” to an Iranian nuclear bomb.

“The greatest threat to our security and to our future was and remains Iran’s effort to arm itself with nuclear weapons. The agreement being formulated in Lausanne paves the way to this outcome,” he stated.

Alluding to the reported details of the agreement, Netanyahu said, “it seems that it will leave in Iran’s possession underground installations, the nuclear reactor at Arak and advanced centrifuges, the same things that only a few months ago we were told [by Obama] were not essential to a nuclear program designed for peaceful purposes.”

“Iran’s breakout time for achieving fissile material for nuclear bombs will not be measured in years, as was said at the outset; in our assessment the time has been reduced to less than a year, probably much less. And all of this is before taking into account the ballistic missiles that Iran is continuing to manufacture, the ongoing development of advanced centrifuges, Iran’s obdurate refusal to reveal to the IAEA its activities to develop nuclear weapons and, I add, Iran’s campaign of conquest and terrorism – which is open to all, everyone sees it, before our very eyes – from the Golan Heights to Yemen, from Iraq to Gaza and so many other places.”

, AP and Reuters