International powers and Iran extended talks on a comprehensive deal over Iran's nuclear program, with new deadlines reaching into next year.
More than a year of intensive talks and the direct involvement of seven foreign ministers for the last several days failed to settle differences over how much nuclear enrichment capability Iran will be allowed to have, and how quickly economic sanctions will be lifted.
The goal is to ensure Iran cannot quickly produce a nuclear weapon, if its leaders decide to do so, and to have inspectors in place to detect any such move.
Real progress, no illusions
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said real progress was made during the last several days of talks, and officials have a better idea what a final agreement will look like.
But he indicated he has no illusions about the work ahead.
“These talks aren’t going to suddenly get easier, just because we extend them. They’re tough, and they’ve been tough and they’re going to stay tough," he said Monday from Vienna.
Kerry also called for support for the extension of the talks, in the face of expected criticism from hardliners in Iran and the United States.
“We would be fools to walk away from a situation where the breakout time has already been expanded rather than narrowed, and where the world is safer because this program is in place,” he said.
Kerry was referring to the time it would take Iran to enrich enough nuclear material to build a bomb, which he said has been expanded by steps Iran took under the interim accord signed a year ago.
That agreement was due to expire on Monday, but has now been extended, including limited relief for Iran from economic sanctions.
He called on the U.S. Congress to give Iran credit for honoring the agreement, and to give negotiators more time to reach a final accord.
Speaking in Tehran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the talks had made progress and that many points of disagreement have been resolved. He said he has no doubt the process will succeed.
Rouhani, quoted by state media agency IRNA on Monday, said Iran will be the eventual winner of the negotiations which, he added, will continue until a final agreement is reached.
Deal based on verification
Kerry praised Iran for so far holding up its end of the interim bargain, halting progress on its nuclear program, even rolling back aspects of it for the first time in a decade.
He warned that international powers were "not going to sit at the negotiating table, forever absent measurable progress," but added now is not the time to give up.
Kerry pointed to the complexity of technical issues and the need to ensure that any final deal will be built on verification, not trust. He said the world wants not just "any agreement, but the right agreement."
Kerry said negotiators will work toward a political framework agreement by March 1. A final deadline of June 30, 2015, has been set for the comprehensive deal.
Talks will resume in December. This is the second extension, after an original, six-month deadline expired in July.
Diplomats earlier said some progress has been made, but gaps remain on key issues, including the number of centrifuges Iran would be allowed to operate as well as the levels of uranium enrichment it could undertake.
Kerry said it was important not to reveal details of the sticking points, as it could damage efforts to find a solution.
The P5+1 talks include representatives from Russia, China, the United States, Britain, France and Germanyy.
Negotiators now aim to complete the outlines of an accord by March, with technical experts working out the details by June 30.
It’s a long, and for many, disappointing extension of a process that has already gone on for more than a year.
The international community has been trying to convince Iran to open and curtail its nuclear program for 12 years.
But Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group says the negotiators may be in a better position to reach an agreement in the next phase of talks.
“Their positions have been clarified," he said. "Therefore they can adopt a much more realistic approach to the negotiations, rather than an approach that was based on brinkmanship.”
Still, he notes that hardliners in Iran and in the U.S. Congress could try to scuttle any chance of an accord
“Nothing is guaranteed, but they are now closer than ever to an agreement," he added. "They’ve invested heavily in this process. And it’s simply too big to fail.”
Iranian-American activist and author Trita Parsi says both sides need to recognize that they have to give away more than they would like.
“If this deal is going to work, if this deal is going to be durable, both sides need to give concessions, and those concessions probably have to be painful," said Parsi. "If the expectation is that either side can keep 80% and only give 20%, even if they could get to a deal, that deal likely will not be durable.”
Nuclear weapons program
Many experts believe Iran previously had a secret nuclear weapons program. But now, its leaders say they have no interest in developing such weapons, and only want a nuclear enrichment capability for energy and medicine.
But negotiators from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China - deputized by the UN Security Council - say that program must be considerably smaller than Iran has now, while Iran wants to expand its capacity.
The negotiators want Iran to be at least six months, preferably a year, away from building a nuclear bomb.
The delay could put pressure on President Rouhani, who was elected a year and a half ago on a promise of economic advancement, in part by negotiating an end to the sanctions. Experts say he will be criticized by Iranians desperate for relief, and by hardliners who say talking to the West is useless.
For the international community, an extension of last year’s interim agreement is not as bad, according to Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“It won’t get any easier to strike a deal, but as long as an interim deal caps Iran’s program so it’s not producing higher enriched uranium or introducing more centrifuges, that’s to the benefit of the Western countries,” he said.
Under the extension, Iran will maintain the temporary restrictions on its nuclear enrichment program that were agreed on a year ago. The United States will continue its slightly eased sanctions policy, including the release $700 million of Iranian frozen assets per month. But the wide range of global trade sanctions will remain in force.
In Washington, reaction to the extension was mixed. Congressional Democrats largely supported the move, while key Republicans warned that Congress must have the opportunity to review any final deal before it is implemented.