US, Iran hold ‘difficult’ talks as nuclear deal deadline nears

With only a month left to go until the deadline for a nuclear deal, talks between Iran and the P5+1 are “intense.” 

By: AP and World Israel News Staff

A month away from the deadline for a deal, talks between Iran and the P5+1 are “intense,” with the main challenges being military inspections and sanctions.

Kerry Zarif

US Secretary of State Kerry (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif during negotiations. (AP/Brian Snyder)

A month away from the June 30th deadline, US and Iranian diplomats focused over the weekend on the differences between the negotiating parties on the two crucial issues in contention – how quickly to ease the economic sanctions against Tehran and how significantly the Iranians must open their military facilities, which are suspected of hosting part of their nuclear development, to international inspections. American officials described the session as “at times intense.”

The talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif lasted six hours in what officials described as the most substantive negotiating round since world powers and Iran wrapped up a framework pact in April.

Last month’s agreement left big questions unanswered, which weeks of subsequent technical discussions have done little to resolve. It was unclear how much progress Kerry and Zarif made before the Iranian delegation left for Tehran.

Asked about completing the full accord by June 30, Zarif said, “We will try.” However, Western diplomats have expressed skepticism at the prospects of sealing a deal on time, and the US announced last week that it has no plans to extend the talks beyond the June deadline.

Zarif’s deputy, Abbas Aragchi, said lower-level officials would meet again in Vienna next week.

US officials provided hints of what must have been a difficult dialogue but said the encounter ultimately proved fruitful, without further elaborating. American members of the negotiating team were not authorized to discuss publicly the private talks and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

World powers believe they may have secured Iran’s acquiescence to a combination of nuclear restrictions that would fulfill their biggest goal: keeping Iran at least a year away from bomb-making capability for at least a decade. Nonetheless, they are less clear about how they will ensure Iran fully adheres to any agreement.

Various Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, have repeatedly declared they will limit access to, or even completely block, monitors from sensitive military sites and nuclear scientists suspected of previous involvement in covert nuclear weapons efforts.

The US says such access must be guaranteed or there will be no final deal.

Iran persists with evasiveness

A report Friday by the UN nuclear agency declared work essentially stalled on its multi-year probe of Iran’s past activities.

The report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also reiterated that more cooperation is needed by Iran for full clarity on its present activities. Without it, the IAEA said it cannot “conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

Washington continues to insist that full lifting of sanctions depends on the IAEA’s ability to thoroughly probe the accusations and deliver an assessment on its findings.

The Iranians are not fully satisfied either.

The unresolved issues include the pace at which the United States and other countries will provide Iran relief from international sanctions — Tehran’s biggest demand — and how to “snap back” punitive measures into place if the Iranians are caught cheating.

President Barack Obama has used the “snapback” mechanism as a main defense of the proposed pact from sharp criticism from Congress and some American allies, saying that if all fails sanctions will be re-imposed immediately.

Yuval Steinitz

Minister Steinitz. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Exactly how rapidly the sanctions on Iran’s financial, oil and commercial sectors would come off in the first place lingers as a sore point between Washington and Tehran.

Speaking ahead of Kerry’s talks with Zarif, senior State Department officials described Iranian transparency and access, and questions about sanctions, as the toughest matters remaining, citing “difficult weeks” since the April 2 framework reached in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Iran insists it is solely interested in peaceful energy, medical and research purposes, though many governments around the world suspect it of harboring nuclear weapons ambitions. The US estimates the Iranians are currently less than three months away from assembling enough nuclear material for a bomb if they chose to covertly develop one.

Israeli Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is entrusted with the Iranian portfolio, on Friday criticized Iran’s refusal to admit inspectors to its military facilities. “Iran’s conduct is further proof that the deal shaping up with the world powers is only a hoax,” he said.