U.S. officials warned Saturday that they would not seek to extend negotiations over Iran's nuclear program beyond the July 20 deadline unless Tehran's negotiators make major concessions in the next several days.
With top Western diplomats convening Sunday in the Austrian capital to review progress in the talks, senior U.S. officials said the two sides remained deeply divided on the core issue of the negotiations: how much uranium enrichment capacity Iran could retain under an agreement to limit its nuclear development program.
They noted that in the last week, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other officials had declared in public comments that Iran needs in the coming years to expand its enrichment capacity to 19 times the current level.
"All you had to do is listen this week to public comments coming from some in the Iranian leadership to see that we're still very far apart on some issues," a senior administration official told journalists Saturday.
Although the two sides have made "some progress" in five months of almost daily negotiations, the official said, "on some key issues Iran has not moved from their, from our perspective, unworkable and inadequate position."
A second senior U.S. official said it would be "hard to contemplate an extension without seeing significant progress on some key issues, and that's what we're going to be looking for over the next few days."
Secretary of State John F. Kerry and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany will meet here Sunday and with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss the progress of negotiations and press Iran for more concessions.
The United States and five other world powers — France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China — have been seeking a deal that would lift international economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs intended to guarantee that Tehran doesn't attain bomb-making capability.
Officials said Kerry will meet with Zarif to explore whether Iran is willing to make adequate concessions, and will report his conclusions to President Obama. But the officials' comments were an unusually bleak assessment of the talks, which are the latest phase in a decade of unsuccessful diplomacy over a nuclear program that Tehran has insisted is for civilian purposes only.
Khamenei has generally sought to stand above the specifics of the nuclear issue. But in comments Monday he declared, using strikingly technical language, that Iran wanted to expand its enrichment capacity to an industrial scale over the next five years.
His statement marked a more aggressive position than that of his negotiating team, which has been seeking to find compromises that could preserve much of the Iranian program while lifting sanctions that have crippled the country's economy. Some analysts read Khamenei's comments as a message to the negotiators not to give in to the six powers.
The Obama administration wants to reduce the Iranian program, which now operates about 10,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium, to a "fraction" of its current size. Officials don't believe Iran has a need for an industrial-scale nuclear capacity because it can purchase enriched uranium from foreign sources, as many countries do.
The U.S. officials said there has been progress on some key issues, and it was possible to imagine agreement on other areas of dispute if progress could be made on key sticking points. But the dispute over enrichment was an enormous roadblock to the final agreement.
Even so, officials said they were not giving up hope. The Obama administration is eager for a deal on a top national security priority, and most Iranians desperately want economic relief. But Khamenei, who has spent his life resisting U.S. power, seemed last week more determined than ever to accept a deal only on his terms.
The U.S. officials said the six powers still had not yet begun discussing an extension of the negotiating deadline, even though that could be a complex and politically charged issue. They declined to say when they would take it up.
The Russian and Chinese foreign ministers declined to attend Sunday's meeting. The U.S. officials said that it was not because of a split within the group, but because the foreign ministers had obligations elsewhere.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times