VIENNA: US Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Vienna on
Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) for a fresh push with his Iranian counterpart to jumpstart stalled talks over Tehran’s nuclear program, with six weeks left to get a deal.
Iran and six world powers have until November 24 to strike a historic accord meant to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons under the guise of its civilian atomic program.
Kerry, who attempted a similar mission in Vienna before a July deadline which was then pushed back, said on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) there was still hard work to be done but that a deal remains achievable.
“I don’t believe it’s out of reach, but we have some tough issues to resolve,” Kerry told reporters in Paris after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif struck a similar tone after talks with EU and US officials in Vienna, telling state media that the “notable differences” were “not insurmountable.”
“All the issues are linked and we need to reach an agreement that covers all issues. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” Zarif said late on Tuesday.
Kerry refused to be drawn on whether—as suggested by many experts – Iran and the six powers might push back the target date.
“We need to continue to have some serious discussions, which we will, and we’ll see where we are,” he said.
“I don’t think anything is served by a lot of speculation at this point in time,” he added.
But Russia’s Lavrov, whose country together with the US, China, Britain, France and Germany forms the P5+1 group, said on Tuesday in Paris that the November deadline was not “sacred.”
“We aspire to get a result by that date but I am convinced by the principle that it is not artificially-set deadlines but the essence of the deal, the quality of the deal [that counts],” Lavrov said, according to Interfax.
Zarif too appeared to indicate that another extension might be needed in order to discuss what he called “serious and innovative”—but unspecified—“new methods.”
Enrichment an obstacle
Iran, reeling from sanctions pressure, denies wanting the bomb and wants to expand its nuclear program in order, it says, to generate electricity and help cancer patients.
But the six powers are pressing Tehran to reduce in scope its activities in order to make any dash to make a weapon all but impossible, offering in return sanctions relief.
In November last year, the two sides agreed an interim deal and set a July 20 target to agree a lasting accord, but after several rounds of intensive negotiations the deadline was extended to November 24 this year.
Progress appears to have been made on changing the design of a new reactor at Arak so that it produces less weapons-grade plutonium, as well as on enhanced United Nations inspections and on the fortified Fordo facility.
The main bone of contention, however, remains Iran’s enrichment capacity, a process rendering uranium suitable for power generation but also, at high purities, for a nuclear weapon.