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Senior US Official: Iran Nuclear Talks May Miss Deadline


FILE - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, listens to Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, before resuming talks over Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne, Switzerland.

A senior U.S. administration official says Iran nuclear negotiators may not make a June 30 deadline for a final agreement.

The official said negotiators are expected to be “close” to an agreement on June 30, if they “can get there at all.”

The official commented in a briefing on Thursday, a day before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Vienna, Austria, where talks have been underway.

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, will take part in the talks, as well as other high-level officials from countries that make up the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, the so-called P5+1.

The senior administration official said negotiators remained “committed” to the June 30 deadline but may “miss it by a short bit.” The official added that all of the parties involved in the talks wanted to ensure that the content of an agreement was right.

“If it takes us a little bit past June 30th to have the right content, as I said a moment ago, what matters here is the substance of the deal and we have to get it right,” the official said.

The official described talks as “extremely tough,” and said some of the most difficult issues were among those being addressed. Those issues include the pace of sanctions relief for Iran and “details about access and transparency,” the official said.

Iran reached a framework nuclear deal with the U.S., Russia China, France, Britain and Germany on April 2. Negotiators are now seeking a final agreement that would restrict Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Iranian officials favor an immediate lifting of sanctions, if an agreement is reached, while P5+1 negotiators favor phased relief.

The two sides have also had disagreements over access to suspected nuclear sites. Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said Iran will not allow international inspectors to have access to military sites, scientists or documents.

However, in a Wednesday briefing, Secretary of State John Kerry said “what matters to us is what is agreed upon within the four corners of the document.”

“That is what is yet to be determined,” he said.

'Major red lines'

Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made remarks Tuesday on state television, saying Iran would not allow international inspectors access to military sites, scientists or documents.

The Iranian leader rejected limitations on the country’s nuclear program, lasting for 10 or 12 years, as unacceptable. He also demanded international sanctions be lifted as soon as a deal is signed, rather than being phased out.

Kerry said the speech and Khamenei’s comments on his Twitter feed about “major red lines” were “for domestic political consumption” adding “it is not new.”

He said, “What matters … is what is agreed upon within the four corners of a document, and that is what is yet to be determined.”

The secretary said that if Iran fails to abide by what was agreed to in the framework reached in Lausanne, “there will not be an agreement.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest Wednesday acknowledged tough bargaining lies ahead.

"The negotiations continue to be difficult, but there continues to be a good faith effort on both sides to try to complete them in the timetable we’ve laid out," Earnest said. "So, there’s a reason they continue to negotiate, but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that all of the difficult challenges have been resolved."

Working on details

Negotiators from Iran and six world powers have been working on the details of a plan to scale back Iran's nuclear program for a period of 10 years in exchange for relief from sanctions that have hurt the country's economy.

The pace of sanctions relief and the monitoring and verification procedures to ensure Tehran is not cheating are considered the main sticking points.

Earnest said Wednesday the only result the U.S. will accept is one consistent with the framework agreement.

"We are very focused on the actions of the negotiators at the negotiating table and of Iran’s willingness to live up to the commitments they make if they do eventually make them," he said.

"We have been really clear about the fact that we’re only going to agree to a final agreement if it reflects the political agreement that was reached back in the first week of April, and if that is not something the Iranians will be able to agree to then we will not successfully complete the negotiations," he added.

Remarks found disturbing

University of San Francisco Middle East analyst Stephen Zunes said any agreement will need the endorsement of the Ayatollah Khamenei, the most powerful figure in Iran.

Zunes said he finds Khamenei’s remarks disturbing.

"Even though Iran is, of course, an authoritarian system, it’s not one-man rule. There are competing tendencies, both hardline and moderate, and while the Ayatollah Khamenei is the single most powerful [leader], there are a lot of forces at work, and it appears that most Iranians, both in the government and the country as a whole, are in favor of moving the deal forward," he said.

Iran's Guardian Council Wednesday ratified legislation that requires the government to protect the country's nuclear rights and bans access by international inspectors to military sites and scientists.

Zunes said the new law appears to affect only non-nuclear sites in Iran.

"The rigorous inspection regime tentatively agreed to is not affected by this. At the same time, the agreement is somewhat vague in terms of what ancillary sites would be included, so it is possible this could be an obstacle, but not necessarily a fatal one," he said.

The measure does allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to make routine visits to Iranian nuclear sites within the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Former Ambassador James Jeffrey is one of several former officials, including five who served in the Obama administration, who signed an open letter expressing concern the pending agreement could fall short of a good one.

Jeffrey, with the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, said the signatories are concerned the administration will offer further concessions on inspections, Tehran’s past work on weapons, and its continued research and development.

"Walking back the [Lausanne framework] agreement on the part of the Iranians, thus accepted by the United States, would be a terrible mistake. We have alternatives. One would be to continue negotiating with them. Nothing is sacred about the 30th of June," he said.