U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and three of his European counterparts have joined talks in Vienna to press Iran for more concessions on its nuclear program, as next Sunday’s deadline looms.
Secretary Kerry flew into Vienna overnight from Afghanistan to join the discussions and meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. Kerry arrived shortly after a senior U.S. official involved in the talks told reporters some of Iran’s positions are “inadequate and unworkable.”
Officials say an agreement on long-term limits on Iran’s nuclear program and an end to international economic sanctions is 70 percent finished, but that significant gaps remain on key issues. Those are believed to include how much capacity Iran will retain to enrich uranium, a potential fuel for nuclear bombs, and how long the restrictions will last.
Arriving for the talks Sunday morning, Secretary Kerry described the situation this way.
“Obviously we have some very significant gaps still. So we need to see if we can make some progress and I really look forward to a very substantive and important set of meetings and dialogues. This is a very important subject. It is vital to make certain that Iran is not going to develop a nuclear weapon, that their program is peaceful,” he said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called for good faith on both sides in the negotiations, saying that "trust is a two-way street."
The U.N. Security Council deputized its five permanent members - the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China - plus Germany to negotiate with Iran on measures to guarantee that its nuclear program is purely peaceful, as Iran says it is.
But Iran has violated past agreements on the nuclear program, ignored resolutions from the Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and pursued secret military nuclear research.
So the international community wants strict, verifiable controls to ensure that if Iran does decide to build a nuclear bomb, the project could not be kept secret and would take a year or more. That would provide time for diplomatic or, potentially, military moves to stop it.
Iran expert Matthew Moran of London’s King’s College says the experience of past failed agreements with Iran is an important factor in these talks.
“The international community has learned a lot from its past experience of negotiating with Iran. So, there is pressure to reach agreement, but I don’t think that an agreement will be rushed. We’re talking about a lasting solution to one of the key problems on the international security agenda. And that’s not something that can be taken lightly,” said Moran.
These talks follow a preliminary agreement reached in December that resulted in some rollbacks of Iran’s nuclear program in return for limited relief from economic sanctions. The two sides agreed to negotiate a comprehensive agreement within six months, giving themselves a July 20th deadline. They also provided the option of extending the preliminary accord for a further six months to allow more time to settle disagreements.
But an extension also creates problems. Officials are concerned that momentum toward an agreement could be lost, that international sanctions could weaken and that U.S. congressional elections in November could make it harder to get sanctions relief approved. In addition, Iran has indicated that it wants more easing of sanctions as part of any extension, something U.S. officials say they are not willing to provide.
Last year, it took two interventions by foreign ministers to finalize the preliminary agreement. This is their first visit to these talks, and the Russian and Chinese ministers were not able to get here. So, the ministers could be back again next weekend for a final push.