Hopes fade for Iran nuclear deal as US talks struggle
John Kerry was struggling to salvage "tough" and "difficult" negotiations with Iran last night as hopes faded of achieving a final agreement to settle the confrontation over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
The US secretary of state held two more meetings with Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, at the Palais Coburg in Vienna.
Without an agreement, America and Iran would remain bitter rivals, unwilling to co-operate even on areas of common interest including the struggle against Isil. But there was no sign of a breakthrough in time for today's deadline.
Asked whether the mood was "pessimistic", a diplomat involved in the talks replied: "That's the right sort of summation. Things are very tough. The significant gaps are still significant gaps."
Mr Kerry and Mr Zarif are believed to remain at loggerheads over two crucial issues, namely the size of Iran's future capacity to enrich uranium and the speed at which sanctions would be lifted under any agreement.
One Iranian diplomat privately ruled out the chance of achieving a final accord by today. "Considering the short time left until the deadline and number of issues that needed to be discussed and resolved, it is impossible to reach a final and comprehensive deal by November 24," he told ISNA, an Iranian news agency.
The alternative would be to extend the deadline and, in the meantime, renew the interim agreement signed in Geneva last November, which places constraints on Iran's nuclear programme. "The issue of extension of the talks is an option on the table," added the Iranian diplomat.
In Washington, US President Barack Obama said the Geneva agreement had been satisfactory, adding: "So now the question is, can we get to a more permanent deal? And the gaps are still significant."
Mr Obama added that Iran was now isolated, telling ABC News: "The difference is, I've got the entire international community on my side - and they're sort of on their own."
America and its allies are believed to have asked Iran to sacrifice about 80pc of its 19,500 centrifuges, the machines used to enrich uranium. In addition, America is understood to be pressing for Iran to relinquish almost 90pc of its stockpile of 8.4 tonnes of low-enriched uranium.
These two measures would jointly ensure that Iran's scientists would need about 12 months to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear bomb. But Iran has doggedly resisted dismantling its enrichment capacity.
In addition, Iran wants any final agreement to guarantee the immediate lifting of sanctions. America, by contrast, seeks a gradual easing of the pressure and the option of sanctions "snapping back" in case Iran breaks the deal.
Instead of aiming for a comprehensive agreement, America and Iran are now understood to have downgraded their ambitions and begun working towards a limited "framework" deal. This would set out some agreed principles and fix a new deadline for a final accord.
Another diplomat said the negotiators were "aiming" to agree a "framework" that would define the "parameters" of a comprehensive deal. Mr Kerry's first meeting with Mr Zarif lasted for two hours yesterday. Afterwards, the secretary of state chose to brief Saudi Arabia, a US ally with deep suspicions about Iran's intentions and profound scepticism towards any agreement.
The state department said that Mr Kerry met Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, to "update him on negotiations".
Later, Mr Kerry held his sixth meeting with Mr Zarif since Thursday. The negotiations are being conducted by the "P5 plus 1" contact group, consisting of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany.
All of the other foreign ministers representing these countries, except for China's, arrived in Vienna last night. Mr Kerry attended a "working dinner" in Vienna hosted by Philip Hammond, the British Foreign Secretary.
Privately, Western diplomats question whether Mr Zarif has been given enough freedom by his superiors to make the concessions needed for an agreement. (© Daily Telegraph, London)