Iran questioned whether a July deadline for a nuclear deal with world powers will be met, fuelling doubts on the outcome as France spoke out to say talks on curbing Tehran's uranium enrichment had "hit a wall."
Iran's talks with six major powers on curbing its nuclear program in exchange for an end to Western sanctions could be extended for six months if no deal is reached by a July 20 deadline agreed by all parties, a senior Iranian official said.
While an extension is possible under the terms of the talks, experts believe both Iran and the international powers may face domestic political pressures to argue for better terms during this extra time period, further complicating negotiations.
The Iranian official, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, said it was "too soon to judge" whether more time was needed.
"But the good thing is that all parties are seriously committed to meet that goal," he said of the July 20 target. "Whether we can do it or not is something else," he told Iranian media in Geneva. A recording of his remarks were reviewed by Reuters.
Araqchi, in remarks on the sidelines of meetings with senior U.S. officials in the Swiss city, had earlier spoken of a possible half-year extension to the talks.
Singling out a big gap in negotiating positions that will be difficult to overcome in less than two months, France's foreign minister said Iran should drop a demand to have thousands of uranium enrichment centrifuges. Instead it should restrict itself to a few hundred of the machines used to increase the concentration of the fissile isotope of the metal – a process that can make a weapon, though Iran denies it wants to do that.
Iran – which says its nuclear program is peaceful and mainly aimed at generating electricity – has around 19,000 centrifuges, of which roughly 10,000 are operating, according to the U.N. nuclear agency. Enriched uranium can have both civilian and military uses, depending on the degree of refinement.
"We are still hitting a wall on one absolutely fundamental point which is the number of centrifuges which allow enrichment," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio.
"We say that there can be a few hundred centrifuges but the Iranians want thousands so we're not in the same framework."
Paris has long held out for strict terms in the negotiations and it was not immediately clear whether Fabius was spelling out Paris's position or that also of the other five powers, the United States, Germany, Britain, China and Russia.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said the priority was not the July 20 deadline but to achieve a deal that ensured Tehran would not obtain a nuclear weapon.
Western officials say Iran wants to maintain a uranium enrichment capability far beyond what it currently needs for civilian purposes. Iran says it wants to avoid reliance on foreign suppliers of fuel for planned nuclear reactors.
U.S. and Iranian officials held talks in Geneva to tackle ways of breaking a deadlock which has raised the likelihood that the deadline will lapse without a deal meant to head off the risk of a Middle East war over the nuclear issue.
The negotiations ran into difficulty last month with each side accusing the other of making unrealistic demands, raising doubts about prospects for a breakthrough next month.
An extension should be possible, but U.S. President Barack Obama would need to secure the consent of Congress at a time of fraught relations between his administration and lawmakers.
Close U.S. ally Israel, which in the past has threatened to attack Iranian nuclear sites, has made clear its deep skepticism about the chances of a deal that sufficiently denies Iran any nuclear weapons capability. Iran says it is Israel's assumed nuclear arsenal that threatens peace in the region.
Iran and the powers included the July 20 deadline to reach a comprehensive agreement in an interim deal agreed in November.
The November agreement – under which Iran suspended some nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief – allowed for a six-month extension if more time were needed for a settlement. An extension would allow up to half a year more for limited sanctions relief and restraints on Iranian nuclear work.
Nuclear diplomacy expert Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank said he did not think an extension was being formally discussed already as that would be to admit failure to meet the target date.
"But some discussion of it must be under way informally because a rollover is not as simple as it might seem," he said.
"To make it politically palatable, each side would want some marginal improvements, which will need to be negotiated."
Iran expert Ali Vaez said both sides "might require additional interim concessions to placate their domestic skeptics" if the interim deal is rolled over because the parties are far apart.
But if they have been able "to narrow the gap and need a few more weeks to hammer out the technical details, they might just opt for a no-cost extension," Vaez, of the International Crisis Group think-tank, said.
"Tough Choices" required
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the primary U.S. negotiator with Iran, met an Iranian delegation led by Araqchi in Geneva on Monday and Tuesday.
"We are at a critical juncture in the talks," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in Washington. Another round of negotiations is scheduled for June 16-20 in Vienna.
"We know we don't have a lot of time left," Harf said of the July 20 deadline. "That's why we've said diplomacy will intensify. People need to make tough choices."
Araqchi, the Iranian deputy foreign minister, used similar language: "There are still gaps," he said. "In order to bring our views closer, the other side must make tough decisions."
The French Foreign Ministry said officials from France and Iran would meet on Wednesday to discuss the Vienna negotiations. And Russian officials will have talks with the Iranians in Rome on Wednesday and Thursday, according to Iranian media.