Optimism as Iran nuclear talks reach 'final' stage
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Negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme entered their 17th – and possibly last – day in Vienna on Monday as diplomats said they hoped to announce a final agreement before the day's end despite the "major issues" still to be resolved.
The deadline for the end of the current negotiations has already been extended three times, and a prior draft agreement is set to expire at midnight Vienna time. The goal of the deal now being negotiated is to increase the time it would take for Iran to produce enough enriched uranium for a weapon to at least one year from the current estimates of two to three months, known as the “breakout” time.
After more than two weeks of progress and subsequent backtracking – including threats from both the United States and Iran to walk away from the talks – senior officials began expressing optimism on Sunday that a deal was within reach, despite cautions from US Secretary of State John Kerry that “major issues” remained to be resolved.
Kerry said that he was "hopeful" a deal was in the making and met again with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Sunday evening; Kerry and Zarif have met for talks almost every day during the prolonged negotiations. After Sunday’s meeting, foreign ministers and senior officials from the “P5+1” – the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France + Germany – held a working dinner.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was also cautiously optimistic, telling reporters that he was hopeful that the negotiations were entering the final stretch. "I hope, I hope, that we are finally entering the final phase of this marathon negotiation," Fabius told reporters.
In another sign of a possible agreement, the foreign ministers of Russia and China, who had left the talks in Vienna last week, both returned to the Austrian capital late on Sunday.
But Iranian President Hassan Rohani warned that a deal was not yet finalised.
“It might seem we have reached the top of the mountain. But no, there are still steps needed to be taken,” the ISNA news agency quoted him as saying. “Even if we fail ... we have performed our duty.”
A senior Iranian official said 99 percent of the issues had been resolved, adding: “With political will we can finish the work late tonight and announce it tomorrow.”
Movement toward a deal has been marked by years of tough negotiations. An agreement is aimed at imposing long-term, verifiable limits on any nuclear programmes that Tehran could later modify to produce weapons. Iran, in return, would get tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief.
Among the biggest sticking points in the past week has been Iran’s insistence that a United Nations Security Council arms embargo and ban on its ballistic missile programme dating from 2006 be lifted immediately if an agreement is reached. Iran also insists that any UN Security Council resolution approving the nuclear deal be written in a way that avoids describing Iran's nuclear activities as illegal.
Russia, which sells weapons to Iran, has publicly supported Tehran on the embargo issue. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov returned to the talks in the Austrian capital on Sunday.
Other obstacles in the talks include the question of allowing international inspectors access to Iranian military sites, explanations from Tehran over its past activities and how quickly sanctions would be rolled back.
A diplomat familiar with the negotiations said disagreements also persist on how long some of the restrictions on imports of nuclear technology and other embargos outlined in any new Security Council resolution will last. The diplomat, who demanded anonymity because the diplomat wasn't allowed to discuss the confidential talks, said restrictions will last for years, not months.
Unease over a deal
A final agreement would be a diplomatic victory for US President Barack Obama, who has made the talks a centrepiece of his foreign policy, as well as for Rohani, a moderate seeking to end his country's diplomatic isolation and see it emerge from under crippling sanctions.
Not everyone is pleased by the prospect of a deal, however. Thawing relations between Shiite Iran and the United States unsettles many in the Middle East, including regional rivals Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled Gulf monarchies.
The Arab states are deeply suspicious of Iran, accusing it of fomenting unrest in Syria, Yemen and beyond. A Saudi-led coalition continues to bomb the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen that have deposed the president and taken over much of the capital Sanaa.
Iran's state-run Press TV quoted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Saturday as calling on university students in Tehran to be "prepared to continue the struggle against arrogant powers", a likely reference to the United States.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce opponent of what he considers a deal that is too lenient on Tehran, said Khamenei's comments showed that Western powers were "caving" to Iran even as the Islamic republic keeps railing against them.
Israel, which is widely believed to have nuclear weapons itself, has complained that the proposed deal will fail to stop its arch foe from getting the bomb. Many in Israel, including Netanyahu, view a nuclear Iran as an existential threat.
The proposed agreement has also been viewed with scepticism by some in the United States. Republican lawmaker and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in an interview broadcast Sunday that the deal being negotiated will prove a "hard sell" at Congress.
"It appears as if the administration's approach to this was to reach whatever agreement the Iranians are willing to enter into," he told Fox News.
The US Senate in May voted overwhelmingly to pass a bill giving Congress the right to review, and potentially reject, any agreement with Iran.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)