VIENNA: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and fellow foreign ministers are adding their diplomatic muscle to try to advance troubled nuclear talks with Iran, with a target date only a week away for a pact meant to curb programs Tehran could turn to making atomic arms. Deep differences separate the two sides and six world powers and Iran appear set to extend their talks past July 20. That would give more time to negotiate a deal that would limit the scope of such programs in exchange for a full lifting of nuclear-related sanctions imposed on Tehran.
“Obviously we have some very significant gaps still, so we need to see if we can make some progress,” Kerry told reporters before a meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is convening the talks.
“It is vital to make certain that Iran is not going to develop nuclear weapons, that their program is peaceful. That’s what we are here trying to achieve.”
Kerry arrived Sunday. Britain and Germany also sent their foreign ministers to Austria’s capital for talks over the next few days, as has Iran. But the top diplomats from China and Russia are sending lower-ranking officials instead. That may reflect their view that an extension is unavoidable.
Still, the most important disputes over how deeply Iran must cut its nuclear program are between Washington and Tehran, so Kerry’s presence is crucial. He will be able to talk directly to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is at the Vienna negotiations.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi suggested any extension would be relatively short, saying “there is not much willingness” by either side to go a full six months. He earlier spoke of “huge and deep differences.”
Discussions center on imposing long-term restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment and against plutonium production – materials usable in nuclear warheads. In exchange, the U.S. and other powers would scrap a series of trade and oil sanctions against Tehran.
In Iran, hard-liners oppose almost any concession by moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s government.
And in the U.S., Republicans and Democrats have threatened to scuttle any emerging agreement because it would allow Iran to maintain some enrichment capacity.
Outside the negotiation, regional rivals of Iran including Israel and Saudi Arabia are extremely skeptical of any arrangement that would, in their view, allow the Islamic Republic to escape international pressure while moving closer to the nuclear club.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that any deal leaving Iran with the capability to enrich uranium would be “catastrophic.”
“It would be a disaster for the United States and for everyone else,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Fox News.
Netanyahu warned that “a bad deal is actually worse than no deal,” defining that as one in which Iran would keep enriched nuclear material and the capability to further enrich uranium in return for monitoring by international inspectors.
“I certainly hope that doesn’t happen. I think it would be a catastrophic development, because you know the Middle East is in turmoil, everything is topsy-turvy, the worst militants, Shiite and Sunni radicals are vying with each other who will be the king of the Islamist hill,” he said.
“If any one of these sides get their hands on nuclear weapons, all bets are off.”
Iran says its program is solely for peaceful energy production and medical research purposes, though much of the world fears it’s a covert effort toward nuclear weapons capability.
An interim deal in January effectively froze Iran’s program, with world powers providing sanctions relief to Tehran of about $7 billion. The two sides also agreed to a six-month extension past July 20 for negotiations to reach a comprehensive deal if necessary.
With many issues left unresolved, officials with knowledge of the talks said an extension was seen as the most likely result. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the ongoing negotiations publicly.
A senior U.S. official said Saturday that an extension would be difficult to consider without first seeing “significant progress on key issues.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also raised the possibility of extending the negotiations.
“If we can reach a deal by July 20, bravo, if it’s serious,” he told reporters. “If we can’t, there are two possibilities. One, we either extend ... or we will have to say that unfortunately there is no prospect for a deal.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said it’s too early to speak of extending the diplomacy. “It is unlikely there will be a quick breakthrough today but we ... shall see what scope there is for making progress before July 20,” he told reporters.
China urged world powers and Iran “to show flexibility” in talks over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. “We urge all parties to show flexibility and political will to reach a comprehensive agreement,” Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Li Baodong told reporters in Vienna.