LAUSANNE: Iran and the US aim in talks starting Sunday in Switzerland to begin closing in on a deal reducing Tehran’s nuclear activities to within strict limits after 18 months of tortuous negotiations.
Time is however running short and tempers are fraying in Washington where critics fear that the mooted accord will not do enough to prevent the Islamic Republic getting nuclear weapons.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, due to meet his Iranian counterpart in Lausanne later, sought to allay such concerns, saying the aim was “not just to get any deal, it is to get the right deal”.
The target is for Iran and six world powers—the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany—to agree to the outlines of a deal by March 31 and to fine-tune the details by July 1.
Kerry said on Saturday that his “hope” is that the deal can be clinched “in the next days.” But he cautioned that there remained “some important gaps” between the two sides.
“We believe very much that there’s not anything that’s going to change in April or May or June that suggests that at that time a decision you can’t make now will be made then,” Kerry told CBS television.
If Iran’s nuclear programme is indeed “peaceful,” as Tehran says, “let’s get it done,” Kerry said.
The US and Iran have not had diplomatic relations for 35 years and the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear programme has dogged its international relations for more than a decade.
But the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani resulted in a minor thaw and the past 18 months have seen an intense diplomatic effort to resolve the issue.
Under a landmark November 2013 interim deal, Tehran stopped expanding its activities in return for minor sanctions relief. Since then the parties have been pushing for a lasting accord.
But to the alarm of Israel and US Republicans, Washington looks to have abandoned insisting that Iran dismantles all nuclear activities, tolerating instead a small programme under tight controls.
In theory, this still leaves Iran with the possibility to get the bomb, critics say, and last week 47 Republicans took the unprecedented step of writing an open letter to Iran’s leaders.
They warned that any nuclear deal could be modified by Congress or revoked “with the stroke of a pen” by whomever succeeds President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
This followed a barnstorming address to US lawmakers — on a Republican invitation — by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning against a deal.
Republicans have also threatened to bring draft legislation imposing more sanctions towards the end of March, something that would likely prompt Iran to walk away.
The letter provoked a storm in Washington with Vice President Joe Biden calling it “dangerous” and the State Department saying it was “harmful to American security.”
Obama said in a media interview that he was “embarrassed” for the signatories, while Washington’s allies in its talks with Iran were also unimpressed.
“The negotiations are difficult enough, so we didn’t actually need further irritations,” German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier said.
Meanwhile, as the drive to reach an accord with Iran on its nuclear program heads towards a March 31 deadline, France is digging into its role as chief hawk — a position inclined to annoy US allies, but not likely to scuttle an eventual accord, diplomats say.
The French hard-line among its US, British, Chinese, Russian and German partners to hammer out a nuclear agreement with Tehran is rooted in ideological, historical, and even personal concerns that tend to stiffen as Paris recognizes Washington’s increasing pragmatism in seeking to conclude a deal swiftly.
“France has taken the opposite path to that of the US, which changed strategies with the arrival of Barack Obama,” said Bernard Hourcade, an Iran specialist at the National Center of Scientific Research, who says France’s current Socialist-led government adopted and defends the wary, intransigent stance towards Iran set down by previous conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy.
“Paris has clearly made the choice of going with Gulf oil monarchies and with a conservative stability” in the region, and frontally opposing Iranian interests and influences that Paris blames for violence and turmoil in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, Hourcade said.