VIENNA – Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif delayed their departure Friday night to keep negotiating over Iran’s nuclear capacity, casting further doubt on their ability to strike a deal by a Monday deadline.
The two diplomats, together with European Union envoy Catherine Aston, held a hastily-scheduled meeting that stretched for over two hours Friday evening. It was their third since Kerry arrived in Vienna on Thursday night, complemented by a flurry of meetings Kerry held with French, British and German diplomats in what initially looked like preparation for a comprehensive accord.
Hopes were buoyed early in the day when Zarif’s entourage told Iranian reporters he would go to Tehran for consultations. In short, choreographed order, Kerry’s office announced that he would fly to Paris to consult with Europeans allies.
But their plans went awry when Zarif, in an apparent change of mind, said he wasn’t leaving Vienna after all.
“What is on the table is not substantial enough for me to take it to Tehran,” he told IRNA, the official Iranian news agency.
Kerry met with Zarif and ended up ditching Paris for now. He said he would keep talking with Zarif and Ashton on Saturday.
“We have not yet determined when we will depart, but will stay in Vienna overnight,” said State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki.
With three days remaining before an interim agreement expires, the confusion and last-minute itinerary changes underscored how negotiations are bedeviled by large gaps between what the Iranians will concede and the demands of the six other nations conducting the talks.
The decision to keep working on the granular details of an agreement they can sell in their own capitals engendered speculation and commentary on whether a deal can be reached by Monday — and if not, what it means for prospects between the West and Iran. Nuclear negotiations were revived nearly three years ago, but kicked into high gear only this year. Indicating how much is at stake, neither the Iranians nor the Americans are offering any significant accounting of their talks.
In between huddling with diplomats in Vienna, Kerry spoke by telephone with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, Moscow said.
Russia, a close Iranian ally, has clout in the talks. It built Iran’s lone energy-producing reactor in service, and signed a deal this month to construct others in the coming decade.
Lavrov said he and Kerry agreed that “additional efforts” were needed to make the deadline, a Russian foreign ministry statement said, without elaborating on the remaining hurdles.
The issues have narrowed to several key points: The extent of Iran’s ability to make nuclear fuel, the level of U.N. monitoring and how much Iran can expect to have international and U.S. economic sanctions eased in exchange for concessions.
The United States and its allies fear that Iran could use its uranium enrichment labs to one day produce warhead-grade material. Iran insists it does not seek nuclear weapons and only wants to fuel reactors for energy and medical applications.
They U.S. wants Iran to reduce its stockpiles of uranium and the centrifuges used to enrich uranium. The goal is to get the levels low enough so that it would take a year or longer for Iran to enrich enough uranium to potentially build a nuclear bomb.
But Iran wants more centrifuges to make fuel for nuclear reactors. In addition, it wants all sanctions lifted permanently and soon.
The United States and its allies favor a gradual suspension of sanctions that could be slapped back into place if Iran cheats.
On Thursday, Iran’s nuclear head, Ali Akbar Salehi, showed no signs of relenting, telling local reporters that Iran would increase its enrichment capacity to 20 times its current level within eight years.
Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.