NEW YORK // A second day of negotiations in Muscat between the US and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme ended on Monday without an imminent breakthrough ahead of a looming deadline for a deal.
Only two weeks remain before the November 24 expiration of an interim agreement that raised the prospect of long-term restraints on Iran’s nuclear programme and a broader rapprochement between Tehran and Washington.
The high-level talks between US secretary of state John Kerry, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif and Catherine Ashton, the former EU official coordinating the negotiations, were intended to address the outstanding differences over limits that would block a quick path for Iran to making a bomb in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
The US and five world powers known as the P5+1 are still seeking “verifiable, lock-tight assurances that they can’t develop a nuclear weapon”, US president Barack Obama said in an interview with CBS News on Sunday. “There’s still a big gap. We may not be able to get there.”
The major unresolved gaps are how much of Iran’s enrichment capabilities are allowed to remain, the time frame for lifting economic sanctions on Tehran and the duration of time that a final agreement would remain in effect.
An accord would revive Iran’s staggering economy and deliver a major foreign policy victory to Mr Obama. But observers say that a deal can only be struck if either side is willing to make concessions that would have potentially significant negative political effects.
Some analysts say the most likely outcome now is an extension of the talks.
“A full-fledged agreement is no longer possible before the deadline. What is still achievable is a breakthrough that could justify adding more time to the clock,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.
But an extension could also be the beginning of the end for a deal. The negotiations have been criticised by many in both parties in the US congress, which came close to passing new sanctions earlier this year that would likely have killed the talks.
The Senate’s senior Democrat was able to convince those from his party to hold off. But the new Republican-controlled congress that takes office in January will likely press ahead with sanctions if talks are extended or if a final accord is not considered a good deal.
New sanctions would most likely prompt Iran to leave the negotiating table and resume its enrichment of high-level uranium, which had been stopped by the interim agreement.
Mr Obama can unilaterally suspend most of the sanctions, but a final lifting must be approved by congress. Mr Obama can also veto a new sanctions law.
A compromise between the two branches of the US government could be “triggered sanctions” that would only come into effect if Iran failed to honour the terms of any deal.
The threat of new sanctions, as well as low oil prices, could add impetus for an agreement to be reached, some observers say. This could make it politically more difficult for the new Congress to be seen as scuttling the deal.
But Iran and the US have been far apart on the key components of even a framework deal. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, is under pressure from hardline Iranian politicians for an immediate end to all sanctions.
Iran also reportedly only wants an accord to remain in place for five years, while the US and world powers are demanding it stays for at least a decade.
The largest sticking point is the size of Iran’s future uranium enrichment capabilities – which Tehran insists it only wants for medical and energy purposes, but that can also be used to build a bomb. Iran reportedly is insisting that it will need hundreds of thousands of enrichment centrifuges, in exchange for rigorous inspections of its nuclear sites.
But the P5+1 negotiators are reported to demand that Iran only maintain a few thousand, so that if Tehran decided to build a weapon it would not go undetected.
* with Agence France-Presse