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Officials Mulling Extension of Iran Nuclear Talks

Officials involved in Iran nuclear talks are seen meeting for dinner at the residence of the British ambassador in Vienna November 23, 2014. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is at right.

The United States and other world powers, trying to negotiate a deal with Iran to curb its nuclear development program, are now looking to extend their talks past their self-imposed Monday deadline.

A senior U.S. official says Secretary of State John Kerry suggested the deadline extension to his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, when they met Sunday in Vienna.

The United States and its P5+1 partners - Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany - are continuing their efforts to reach terms on a deal to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. In exchange, the allies would lift some of the sanctions that have hobbled Tehran's economy.

Officials say that after months of talks, there is little likelihood that an agreement will be reached by the Monday midnight deadline they had agreed upon.

The Iranian Students News Agency quoted an unidentified member of Iran's negotiating team as saying a new pact will not be possible with the short time left until the deadline and the number of issues yet to be resolved. Iran said it would start discussion of an extension to the talks if no agreement is reached by Sunday night.

Kerry said Saturday that "serious gaps" remain in the talks.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the main question is if Iran is ready to end its research on acquiring a nuclear weapon.

At stake

The U.N. Security Council has deputized five of its permanent members and Germany to negotiate with Iran. P5+1 world powers are charged with finding a formula allowing Iran to maintain a peaceful nuclear program, with verifiable limits and guarantees it could never build a nuclear weapon. In return, Iran wants relief from crippling economic sanctions. Officials indicate the extent and timing of all aspects are still in play.

Russia has closer relations with Iran than the West European countries, and its relations with the West have deteriorated sharply this year because of its actions in Ukraine. But by all accounts, Russia remains united with the other negotiating countries on the Iran nuclear issue.

There’s a reason for that, said Anoush Ehteshami, a professor of international relations at Britain’s Durham University.

"The Russians have stuck to the [P]5+1 positions on Iran’s nuclear program," Ehteshami said. "And they have good reason for that: They also don’t want to see a nuclear-weaponized Iran on the southern border."

Strong opposition

Meanwhile, the effort to reach an agreement faces considerable opposition. A protest in Iran Sunday called for no compromise on the key issue of the country’s plutonium reactor, and conservative politicians have made strong statements opposing compromise in recent days.

FILE - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes any deal that would let Iran remain a 'threshold' nuclear weapons power.
FILE - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes any deal that would let Iran remain a 'threshold' nuclear weapons power.

Also Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected any deal that would allow Iran to remain what he called a “threshold” nuclear weapons power.

"No agreement is better than a bad agreement which would endanger Israel, the Middle East and all of mankind," he said.

Many in the U.S. Congress have a similar view, believing Iran cannot be trusted even with a civilian nuclear capability.

Kerry met Sunday with the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, to reassure him about the future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship if there is an Iran deal – just as the U.S. envoy spoke by phone with the foreign ministers of four Persian Gulf states on Saturday.

Expectations questioned

At London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mark Fitzpatrick said opponents of compromise have an unrealistic view of what is possible regarding Iran’s already well-developed nuclear program.

"Almost nothing is going to satisfy those who insist that Iran’s enrichment program should be eliminated altogether," said Fitzpatrick, who directs the institute’s nonproliferation and disarmament program. "But if that ever was a foreseeable goal, that day is long gone. The United States and its allies last year agreed that Iran could have some limited enrichment."

For many, these final days are reminiscent of the process exactly a year ago, when ministers stayed up all night, twice, to hammer out an interim agreement. There could well be more sleepless nights ahead as they wrestle with so far intractable long-term issues they were able to set aside last year.

VOA's Al Pessin contributed to this report from Vienna.

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