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Crunch time for Iran talks

Heading into the final stretch of talks over Iran's disputed nuclear program, Secretary of State John Kerry will likely arrive in Vienna over the weekend cautiously hopeful that the U.S. and its allies could reach a final deal with Iran before their self-imposed deadline of June 30. Mr. Kerry has invested enormous time and energy into making the talks a success despite wide gaps between the two sides. But it takes two to tango, and there's so far no indication that the Iranians share Mr. Kerry's eagerness for an accord or that they're in any hurry to reach a deal before the deadline.

Two months ago the two sides announced a so-called "framework" agreement addressing all the major issues to be included in any final accord. Its basic outlines called for Iran to shut down all but about 5,000 of the 19,000 centrifuges it has built to enrich uranium, impose strict limits on the kinds and amounts of fissile material it can produce and subject all of Iran's declared or suspected nuclear sites to rigorous inspection by international monitors. In exchange the U.S. and its partners — Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany — would gradually lift the economic sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy.

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The negotiators gave themselves until the end of June to work out the details of the pact. But the ink was hardly dry on the document before Iran seemed to backtrack on its commitments. Within hours of announcing the preliminary agreement, the Iranian foreign minister insisted that Iran expected sanctions to be lifted as soon as a final agreement was signed. And only last week Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threw another monkey wrench into the works when he vowed his country would never allow inspectors to visit its military sites and reiterated the demand for an immediate lifting of sanctions before Iran undertook any of the steps it agreed to under the framework accord.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Wednesday publically called Iran's new demands a deal-breaker and questioned whether it wasn't deliberately trying to sabotage the talks at a crucial stage. "France reaffirms that it wants a solid accord, but at the same time [it] must stress the firmness of its positions," he said. Mr. Kerry told reporters today before leaving for talks that he is "always hopeful" an accord can be reached but pointedly decline to characterize his mood as optimistic.

Aides to Mr. Kerry have expressed concern over Mr. Khamenei's recent remarks that seemed to rule out a vigorous international inspection regime and access to Iranian scientists who may have carried out nuclear weapons research. The Obama administration is acutely aware that congressional Republicans are likely to reject any deal that leaves Iran a path to build nuclear weapons before it expires a decade or so from now, and that even Democratic lawmakers are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the safeguards intended to prevent Iranian cheating.

It's possible, of course, that the Iranians are raising these issues now in order to gain last-minute concessions at the bargaining table, though it's inconceiveable the Obama administration would ever agree to significantly water down the sanctions regime or lift economic sanctions before Iran showed it was living up to its commitments. It's also possible that Mr. Khamenei is playing for more time to appease hardliners in his government who oppose any easing of tensions with the West. And U.S. officials say they always expected the outstanding issues to get tougher to resolve as the talks neared completion.

But the talks have clearly reached a dangerous impasse. Administration officials have already begun speculating that the discussions in Vienna may have to be extended several days beyond the deadline in order to judge whether an agreement is still possible. Mr. Kerry insists that if all the outstanding issues aren't addressed in a final accord there simply won't be a deal. That would be a pity for Iran and for the U.S. But this apparently is going to be a nail-biter for both sides up to the last minute.

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