Hopes high for Iran nuclear deal despite US scepticism
Negotiators at the Iran nuclear talks plan to announce today that they have reached an historic deal, capping nearly a decade of diplomacy that would curb the country's atomic programme in return for sanctions relief.
However, a senior US official insisted: "Major issues remain to be resolved."
The envoys cautioned that final details of the pact were still being worked out and that a formal agreement must still be reviewed by leaders in the capitals of Iran and the six world powers at the talks.
Despite the caution, the negotiators appeared to be on the cusp of an agreement.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who on Thursday had threatened to walk away from the negotiations, said yesterday that "a few tough things" remain in the way but added: "We're getting to some real decisions."
Mr Kerry said twice that he was "hopeful" after a "very good meeting" on Saturday with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius also was cautiously optimistic, saying: "I hope that we are finally entering the last phase of this negotiation."
In another sign that a deal could soon be sealed, Russian news agencies reported that Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov had arrived in Vienna.
His Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, was expected late yesterday. Most other foreign ministers of the six nations negotiating with Iran already are in the Austrian capital and in position to join Mr Kerry and Mr Zarif for an announcement.
Movement toward a deal has been marked by years of tough negotiations. The pact is meant to impose long-term, verifiable limits on nuclear programmes that Tehran could modify to produce weapons. Iran, in return, would get tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief.
The current round of nuclear talks is now in its 16th day and has been extended three times since the first deadline of March 31 was missed. The mood among negotiators had turned more sombre each time that a new target date was set.
As the weekend approached, Mr Kerry declared the talks couldn't go on indefinitely and warned that the US could walk away from the negotiations.
Diplomats familiar with the talks said most of the nuts and bolts of implementing the deal have been agreed on.
But over the past week, issues that were previously on the back burner have led to new disputes. Among them is Iran's demand for a lifting of a UN arms embargo and its insistence that any UN Security Council resolution approving the nuclear deal be written in a way that stops describing Iran's nuclear activities as illegal.
A diplomat familiar with the negotiations said disagreements also persist on how long some of the restrictions on imports of nuclear technology and other embargoes outlined in any new Security Council resolution will last. The diplomat said restrictions will last for years, not months.
Despite Mr Kerry's relatively upbeat take, comments by Iran's supreme leader suggested that Tehran's mistrust of Washington would persist, no matter what the outcome of the talks.
Iran's state-run Press TV cited Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as calling the US an "excellent example of arrogance".
It said Mr Khamenei told university students in Tehran to be "prepared to continue the struggle against arrogant powers".
His comments appeared to be a blow to US hopes that an agreement will lead to improved bilateral relations that could translate into increased co-operation in a common cause - the fight against Islamic State radicals.
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