Iran nuclear deal possible in ‘hours’ says UK foreign secretary, but Tehran official warns key issues still not decided
Stakes are high in the Swiss resort of Lausanne on Monday where world diplomats are wrangling to cobble together a deal that will see Iran limit its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
However, with a deadline set for midnight on Tuesday, uncertainty is looming about whether a compromise can be reached in time with conflicting reports emerging about the state of negotiations.
According to a Western diplomat familiar with the talks, it was "yes or no" time with conditions for a deal "more favourable today than three months ago".
However, three key issues - how long any deal should last, the lifting of UN sanctions, and a mechanism for ensuring both sides keep up their end of the deal - continue to weigh over the talks, the diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity told AFP.
The statement follows a range of mixed messages that appeared to have been coming from the various camps.
Late on Sunday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond – part of the so-called P5 + 1 negotiating team made up of US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany - said that a deal could be forged in the “coming hours”.
"Iran is going to take a deep breath and make some tough decisions to ensure that those deadlines can be made. I am very much hopeful that we will have success in coming hours.”
His comments came on the back of a reportedly breakthrough day of negotiations in Lausanne, where P5 + 1 delegates have been holding closed door talks with the Iranians since last Thursday.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that after 18 months of negotiations, they were in the "endgame" while Iran’s lead negotiator Abbas Aragchi said they were in the "final phase," although both men warned that there were still hurdles ahead.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is leading negotiations for Washington, also cancelled a trip to Boston to attend a memorial ceremony for the late senator Edward Kennedy, to stay at the final days of the talks in a move interpreted as a sign that negotiations were moving ahead.
But while the overtures in the international press appeared positive, the Iranians appeared to backtrack on the crucial issue of shipping uranium overseas.
On Sunday Iran’s deputy foreign minister made a surprise move by telling reporters that the issue was not on the table.
“The export of stocks of enriched uranium is not in our programme, and we do not intend sending them abroad,” the official, Abbas Araqchi, told the Iranian media, according to AFP. “There is no question of sending the stocks abroad.”
The comments appear to be in contravention of Iran’s tentative agreement to send a large portion of its stockpile of uranium to Russia.
The US State Department responded by saying that “there is no question that the disposition of their stockpile is essential to ensuring their programme is exclusively peaceful.
“There are viable options that have been under discussion for months, including shipping out the stockpile, but resolution is still being discussed,” an official said.
Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is seen as critical of the current version of the deal, said the development raised serious questions.
“The viability of this agreement as a reliable arms control accord is diminished by this,” Takeyh told the New York Times. “One of the core administration arguments has been that the uranium would be shipped abroad as a confidence building measure.”
The concern is that any backtracking on the issue could further ignite criticism of the deal. The Republican-dominated congress has been an ardent opponent of the current negotiations, and on Sunday stressed that they would push for more sanctions if a deal was not penned in time.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also slammed the negotiations on Monday saying that Nuclear deal would mean Iran paid no price for its "aggression" in Yemen.
"The moderate and responsible countries in the region, especially Israel and also many other countries, will be the first to be hurt by this agreement," said Netanyahu, who has waged a campaign against a nuclear deal with Tehran. The latest round of talks nearly collapsed last week when news broke that a Saudi-led coalition, backed by US and UK logistical support, had begun bombing Houthi militias in Yemen, seen as pro-Iran.
According to reports, the P5 + 1 is willing to enact a broad range of relief measures, including a relaxation of EU sanctions, but is weary of lifting UN Security Council restrictions until a later date.
“The core difference is on the UN Security Council sanctions,” a Western diplomat in Lausanne told the Guardian. “The UN Security Council resolutions have special meaning for them [the Iranians].”
The Iranians have also been pushing to keep at least some details of the final agreement secret and it is unclear how much of the agreement will become public knowledge even if a deal is struck.
Even if the Tuesday deadline is met, however, there are expected to be months more of negotiations before a final agreement, due by 1 July, can be agreed.
“We are not there yet,” a Western official who declined to be identified told the New York Times. “There are lots of pieces floating around.”
The P5+1 have claimed Iran is developing nuclear weapons although Tehran has always insisted that its nuclear programme is solely for peaceful purposes.
The deal sought by the six-member group would have Iran accept limits on its uranium enrichment capacity and would allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspections without interference.