Tue, Mar 17, 2015 - Page 1 News List

US, Iran press for nuclear deal, but a lesser announcement may be on table

AP, LAUSANNE, Switzerland

The US and Iran plunged back into negotiations yesterday in a bid to end a decades-long standoff that has raised the specter of an Iranian nuclear arsenal, a new atomic arms race in the Middle East and even a US or Israeli military intervention.

Two weeks out from a deadline for a framework accord, some officials said persistent differences meant negotiators would likely settle for an announcement that they have made enough progress to justify further talks.

Such a declaration would hardly satisfy critics of the administration of US President Barack Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Iran and hardliners in the Islamic Republic, whose rumblings have grown more vociferous and threatening as the parties have narrowed many of their differences.

Officially, the US and its partners insist their eyes are on a much bigger prize.

“A deal that would protect the world from the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran could pose,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said at the weekend.

Yet, as Kerry arrived in Switzerland for discussions with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, no one was promising a breakthrough.

One diplomat said new differences surfaced only in the last negotiating round of what has been a 15-month process, including a sudden Iranian demand that a nuclear facility buried deep underground be allowed to keep hundreds of centrifuges that are used for enriching uranium — material that can be used in a nuclear warhead.

Previously, the Iranians had accepted that the plant would be transformed into one solely for scientific research, that diplomat and others said.

The deal that had been taking shape would see Iran freeze its nuclear program for at least a decade, with restrictions then gradually lifted over a period of perhaps the following five years. Washington and other world powers would similarly scale back sanctions in several phases.

Iran says it is only interested in peaceful energy generation and medical research, but much of the world has suspected it of maintaining covert nuclear weapons ambitions, and the US and its ally Israel have at various times threatened military action if Iran’s program advances too far.

Speaking on Sunday on CBS News, Kerry said most of the differences between Iran and the negotiating group of the US, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia were “political,” not technical.

He did not elaborate, but political matters tend to include levels of inspections, Iran’s past military work linked to its nuclear program and how quickly to scale back sanctions. Technical matters refer, for example, to how many centrifuges Iran can maintain, what types of those machines and how much plutonium it would be allowed to produce.

Less than four months ago, senior officials talked optimistically about reaching a preliminary agreement by this month. Back then, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said he expected “an agreement on substance” by March 31.

However, two diplomats said ahead of this week’s talks in the Swiss city of Lausanne that persistent differences at the negotiating table had diminished the chances of such a substantial agreement. Instead, they said, the sides were more likely to restrict themselves to a vague oral statement indicating that enough headway had been made to continue negotiations.

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