With a much anticipated deadline awaiting them on Tuesday, March 31, it appears that negotiators from the United States and the P5+1 nations (Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) reached an impasse of sorts in Lausanne, Switzerland as they attempted to hammer out a preliminary accord to place significant limitations on Tehran’s nuclear program. Spokespeople signaled that no formal announcement will be made, as they might be prepared to work into Wednesday.
"Our experts and diplomats are working very hard around the clock to see if we can get to an agreement," a senior State Department official said at 6 p.m. on Tuesday. "Our team is evaluating where we are throughout the day and making decisions about the best path forward. We will of course keep working if we are continuing to make progress, including into tomorrow, if it’s useful to do so. At this time, no decisions have been made about our travel schedule."
Discussions went on in working group format until 2 a.m. today and resumed at 6 a.m., before heading into plenary session at 7:30 a.m., Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said.
The March 31 deadline was established three months ago as a mechanism to determine whether there was enough political will to reach a final accord by the end of June, when an interim agreement temporarily limiting Iran’s activities expires, according to a report in the New York Times. Even if an agreement is struck, there have been signs that several of the most difficult issues will be deferred for a final agreement in three months.
Another Western official, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss closed-door talks, said that the negotiations on Tuesday had been difficult.
Senior Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi said various proposals were being discussed. "Still, we cannot say we are close to resolving the remaining issues," he told reporters. "We hope to reach a conclusion tonight or tomorrow, but it is not guaranteed and we have a difficult way to go."
On Monday, the State Department acknowledged that a central question, the disposition of Iran’s large stockpile of nuclear fuel, remained a subject of debate, according to the report in the NYT.
It had been reported in the last few days that Iran was assuming an intransigent posture over the time table for the planned lifting of economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Iranian negotiators put forth demands that the United Nations ease sanctions immediately. The US and their negotiating partners countered with a plan of gradual relaxation of sanctions in order to guarantee that Iran take concrete measures that would make it significantly more difficult to produce material used for a nuclear bomb in less than a year. In addition, the US team wants Iran to offer long-evaded answers to questions from IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors.
Some Western countries, including France, by contrast, had wanted a “snapback” mechanism in the suspension of UN Security Council sanctions, so that a new UN Security Council vote would not be required to re-impose sanctions should Iran be determined to be in violation of any final nuclear agreement.
The United States Congress has sworn to impose additional sanctions on Iran if a preliminary accord is not reached — a threat that may lead the Obama administration to solidify what it can get now and seek more in the next three months, according to published reports.
Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman told reporters that, “The bottom line is that we don’t have agreement with the Iranians on the stockpile issue.” Western officials here suggested that the issue might be categorized a technical question and kicked down the road to the June final agreement.
“One person is missing here: It’s Ayatollah Khamenei,” a senior European diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said late on Monday, referring to the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to the report in the NY Times. “We don’t know what he will think of the provisions.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, however, indicated that progress in the talks had been made and an agreement might be imminent. After returning to Lausanne from Moscow on Tuesday afternoon, he said that the chances of reaching a viable political deal were “great.”
“These chances are quite realistic as long as none of the participants in the negotiations tries to raise the stakes to get something extra instead of maintaining a balance of interests,” Lavrov said. “As long as that balance is formed, I think the [prospects] for a deal are very good.”
On this final day of negotiations, it appeared that in addition to the issue of lifting of UN Security Council resolutions, negotiators were also struggling over the very real possibility of Iran engaging in research and development on advanced centrifuges in years 11 t o15 of a final deal, according to published reports
Regarding the lifting of UN Security Council sanctions, “There are different options,” Lavrov said March 31. “A full cancelation or an initial suspension followed by an abolition in a legal sense.”
“But what in practice this must mean,” Lavrov continued, is “that the sanctions should no longer work and no longer hinder the development of legal trade and economic activity between Iran and its foreign partners.”
Meanwhile in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a long time vocal opponent of the Iran nuclear talks cautioned against the proposed deal while addressing the swearing-in ceremony of the 20th Knesset.
"The greatest threat to our security and to our future was and remains Iran's effort to arm itself with nuclear weapons," declared Netanyahu, according to an INN report. "The agreement being formulated in Lausanne paves the way to this outcome. ...We will do everything to protect our security and our future."
Outlining the highly secretive deal being crafted, Netanyahu stated "it seems that it will leave in Iran's possession underground installations, the nuclear reactor at Arak and advanced centrifuges, the same things that only a few months ago we were told - and rightly so - were not essential to a nuclear program designed for peaceful purposes."
As was reported by INN, Netanyahu noted that 17 states have peaceful nuclear programs and none of them enrich uranium, which Iran is demanding to be allowed to continue doing with its centrifuges. Likewise Arak and the underground facilities are thought to be being used for developing nuclear weapons technology, a suspicion heightened by Iran's secretive guarding of the facilities.
"Iran's breakout time for achieving fissile material for nuclear bombs will not be measured in years, as was said at the outset; in our assessment the time has been reduced to less than a year, probably much less," warned Netanyahu.
"And all of this is before taking into account the ballistic missiles that Iran is continuing to manufacture, the ongoing development of advanced centrifuges, Iran's obdurate refusal to reveal to the IAEA its activities to develop nuclear weapons," he added.
The prime minister also pointed out "Iran's campaign of conquest and terrorism – which is open to all, everyone sees it, before our very eyes – from the Golan Heights to Yemen, from Iraq to Gaza and so many other places."
Iran is exerting its regional influence via terror proxies in numerous states, including Lebanon through the Hezbollah terrorist group, Yemen with the Shi'ite Houthi rebels, Iraq through Shi'ite militias, and Syria with its own troops and Hezbollah.
Netanyahu said most Arab states shared Israel's concerns regarding a nuclear-armed Iran fueling a regional nuclear arms race, saying "they understand the Iranian threat, the share our perspective on other threats from extremist Islamist elements."
"This also creates opportunities," he stated. "I hope this cooperation between Arab states and us will help us advance peace with our Palestinian neighbors."
Even as nuclear talks were reaching a conclusion on Tuesday, Commander of Iran’s Basij (volunteer) Force, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, said “wiping Israel off the map is not up for negotiation.”
He also issued threats against Saudi Arabia, saying that the offensive it is leading in Yemen “will have a fate like the fate of Saddam Hussein.”
Iran’s Fars News Agency reported that in 2014, Naqdi said Iran was stepping up efforts to arm West Bank Palestinians for battle against Israel, adding the move would lead to Israel’s annihilation.
“Arming the West Bank has started and weapons will be supplied to the people of this region,” Naqdi said.
“The Zionists should know that the next war won’t be confined to the present borders and the Mujahedeen will push them back,” he added. Naqdi claimed that much of Hamas’s arsenal, training and technical knowhow in the summer conflict with Israel was supplied by Iran, according to a report by the Times of Israel.
Earlier on Tuesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington that negotiators had determined “they’re going to continue these conversations tomorrow” if necessary and will talk “as long as the conversations continue to be productive.”
Earnest also said that President Obama was being closely briefed on the talks and would likely speak directly Tuesday with U.S. negotiators.