VIENNA — With a deadline zooming down on them, negotiators made an eleventh-hour effort Sunday to strike a deal that would limit Iran’s nuclear capability and ease crushing sanctions on the country.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry met Sunday morning with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s representative at the talks. It was their fifth meeting since Kerry arrived Thursday night.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was expected to join the talks later Sunday, and there were reports that the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers might arrive, as well. Britain and Germany, the other two members of the team negotiating with Iran, already have come to Vienna in recent days, and the arrival of the Chinese and Russian envoys would be another sign of the approaching end to a year of intense negotiations that have bogged down on the last lap.
Negotiations are being conducted under a cloud of pessimism that the remaining differences dividing the two sides can be bridged by Monday. That is the deadline when an interim accord, already extended once, dies.
Conflicting reports emanated from Iranian negotiating team. Early Sunday, Iranian negotiators told the Iranian news agency ISNA that they already are discussing the possibility of another extension. Other Iranian news outlets later said that they are still focused on getting a comprehensive agreement by the Monday deadline.
Any delay is laden with political complications in Washington and Tehran. It could make it more difficult for the Obama administration to get congressional approval for easing sanctions against Iran once Republicans gain control. And it could embolden Iranian hardliners opposed to any agreement that involves the United States.
In Israel, where skepticism over a deal with Iran is strong, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday morning that he was making a “vigorous” case to the six countries negotiating with Iran that no deal is preferable to a deal that would allow Iran to be a “nuclear threshold state.”
“There is no reason why it should be left with thousands of centrifuges that could enable it to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb in a short time,” said Netanyahu, who was updated on the status of the talks Saturday evening in a call from Kerry.
“Neither is there any reason why Iran should continue to develop intercontinental missiles, which could carry nuclear warheads, and thereby threaten the entire world. Therefore, no agreement at all would be preferable to a bad agreement that would endanger Israel, the Middle East and all of humanity. ”
Nobody wants to see the talks collapse, which could set off an escalation in a region roiled by conflict. One possible scenario is that the two sides agree on principles and extend the interim accord so the experts can work out the details in coming weeks or months.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sounded one of the few notes of optimism in a tweet posted Saturday on his English-language account: “If the parties in #IranTalks have necessary political will 4agreement, the condition will be ripe 4clinching a final agreement.”
Kerry met Saturday afternoon for the fourth time in two days with Zarif and the European Union representative, Catherine Ashton.
He spent the morning working the phones, speaking with foreign ministers from Turkey, Canada, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates and meeting with the French foreign minister.
Kerry also called Israel to brief Netanyahu.
Israel has argued against a deal that would leave Iran with any capacity to enrich uranium. The United States wants Iran to reduce its uranium-enriching centrifuges so it would take Iran at least a year to get enough material for a nuclear weapon. Iran has resisted, saying it wants the material for reactors still unbuilt, and the material would be used for civilian purposes.
Iran has chafed at some of the other proposed restrictions, a position driven as much by Iranian politics and dignity as by science. The negotiators — the United States, France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany — want enough Iranian cutbacks to guarantee nonproliferation. They propose easing international and American sanctions against Iran temporarily and gradually so they can be resumed if Iraq acts covertly. Iran seeks sanctions relief that is more permanent and swift, in part so the deal cannot be undone by a GOP-led Congress.
And while Iran is willing to submit to monitoring of its nuclear program, it wants an end point a few years out. The six-nation negotiating team has proposed a much longer time frame.
William Booth in Jerusalem contributed to this report.