LAUSANNE, Switzerland – Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program resumed here Wednesday but were almost immediately beset by competing claims, just hours after diplomats abandoned a March 31 deadline to reach the outline of a deal and agreed to press on. And as the latest round hit the week mark, three of the six foreign ministers involved left the talks with prospects for agreement remaining uncertain.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, told reporters that if the sides make progress on the text of a joint statement, then that could be issued by the end of the day. But he suggested the statement would contain no specifics.
A senior western official quickly pushed back, saying that nothing about a statement had been decided and that Iran’s negotiating partners would not accept a document that contained no details. The official was not authorized to speak to the negotiations by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The German Foreign Ministry tweeted that “nothing is agreed,” although “progress is visible.”
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Araghchi named differences on sanctions relief on his country as one dispute, along with disputes on Iran’s uranium enrichment-related research and development.
“Definitely our research and development program on high-end centrifuges should continue,” he told Iranian television.
The U.S. and its negotiating partners want to crimp Iranian efforts to improve the performance of centrifuges that enrich uranium because advancing the technology could let Iran produce material that could be used to arm a nuclear weapon much more quickly than at present.
The exchanges reflected significant gaps between the sides, and came shortly after the end of the first post-deadline meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, his British and German counterparts and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif in the Swiss town of Lausanne. They and their teams were continuing a marathon effort to bridge still significant gaps and hammer out a framework accord that would serve as the basis for a final agreement by the end of June.
Eager to avoid a collapse in the discussions, the United States and others claimed late Tuesday that enough progress had been made to warrant an extension after six days of intense bartering. But the foreign ministers of China, France and Russia all departed Lausanne overnight, although the significance of their absence was not clear.
After the talks last broke early Wednesday, Zarif said solutions to many of the problems had been found and that documents attesting to that would soon be drafted. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said before leaving that the negotiators had reached agreement in principle on all key issues, and in the coming hours it will be put on paper.
Others were more skeptical.
Asked how high the chances of success were, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “I cannot say.” And British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Iran might still not be ready to accept what is on the table.
“I’m optimistic that we will make further progress this morning but it does mean the Iranians being willing to meet us where there are still issues to deal with,” Hammond told British reporters.
Kerry postponed his planned Tuesday departure to stay in Lausanne, and an Iranian negotiator said his team would stay “as long as necessary” to clear the remaining hurdles.
Officials say their intention is to produce a joint statement outlining general political commitments to resolving concerns about Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. In addition, they are trying to fashion other documents that would lay out in more detail the steps they must take by June 30 to meet those goals.
The additional documents would allow the sides to make the case that the next round of talks will not simply be a continuation of negotiations that have already been twice extended since an interim agreement between Iran, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany was concluded in November 2013. President Barack Obama and other leaders, including Iran’s, have said they are not interested in a third extension.
But if the parties agree only to a broad framework that leaves key details unresolved, Obama can expect stiff opposition at home from members of Congress who want to move forward with new, stiffer Iran sanctions. Lawmakers had agreed to hold off on such a measure through March while the parties negotiated. The White House says new sanctions would scuttle further diplomatic efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear work and possibly lead Israel to act on threats to use military force to accomplish that goal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has campaigned tirelessly for months against the emerging agreement, said it would “ensure a bad deal that would endanger Israel, the Middle East and the peace of the world.”
“A better deal would significantly roll back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. A better deal would link the eventual lifting of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to a change in Iran’s behavior,” he said.
The U.S. and its negotiating partners are demanding curbs on Iranian nuclear activities that could be used to make weapons, and they say any agreement must extend the time Tehran would need to produce a weapon from the present several months to at least a year. The Iranians deny such military intentions, but they are negotiating with the aim that a deal will end sanctions on their economy.