Iran talks may miss June 30 deadline: U.S.

‘We may not make June 30, but we will be close,’ a senior State Department official told reporters

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High-stakes talks to nail down a historic deal with Iran to curtail its nuclear program may slip past a June 30 deadline, a top U.S. official acknowledged Thursday.

“We may not make June 30, but we will be close,” a senior State Department official told reporters as top U.S. diplomat John Kerry prepares to head Friday for potentially the last negotiations for a deal with Iran and global powers in Vienna.

The official also said all seven nations involved in the talks were committed to a self-imposed June 30 deadline but it could slip “by a short bit” if necessary to get the substance of any agreement right.

“Despite these tough issues, we can truly see a path forward that gets us to a very good agreement here,” the senior U.S. official told reporters during a conference call. “I am hopeful but it still remains to be seen whether we can get there.”

Prominent former U.S. officials, including five with ties to President Barack Obama’s first term, on Wednesday published a letter warning that a deal on curbing Iran’s nuclear program was at risk of failing to provide adequate safeguards.

The letter’s release ahead of what may be the finale to the nuclear talks appeared aimed at pressuring the White House to negotiate a stronger agreement.

In a related story, officials said Kerry telephoned Iran’s foreign minister in recent days to tell him that Tehran must answer questions about whether its past atomic research was arms-related if it wants a nuclear deal.

The telephone calls came after Kerry raised eyebrows among some Western officials by saying the U.S. was “not fixated” on any past Iranian work, about which it already had “absolute knowledge,” and was looking to the future instead.

The officials have also voiced concern that Kerry was backing down on a crucial demand in the talks, one Tehran has consistently ignored, and said he was overstating U.S. knowledge about Tehran’s past nuclear work in the interest of getting a deal at all costs.

A day after Kerry made those June 16 remarks, a State Department spokesman said the words of the top U.S. diplomat had been misinterpreted and dismissed the idea that Washington had climbed down from previous demands that Tehran come clean about its nuclear past.

But two Western officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, were not persuaded by the State Department denial.

“I suspect he accidentally gave a window into his negotiating stance with the Iranians,” one official said. Critics say that Kerry’s intense involvement in the talks suggest that he is chasing an agreement, signaling an eagerness for a deal that the Iranians can exploit for concessions.

The damage control went beyond the daily State Department briefings, during which reporters grilled new spokesman John Kirby on this issue for days. Kerry, officials told Reuters, called Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to make sure he did not think Washington was letting Iran off the hook.

“Kerry called Zarif and told him the past does matter and the U.S. was insisting that the PMD (possible military dimensions) issue be resolved in the negotiations,” a Western source close to the talks told Reuters.

An Iranian official said Kerry spoke to Zarif twice in recent days.

“There were two calls from Kerry to Zarif, during which he corrected his stance ... He told Mr. Zarif that he had been misunderstood and the past activities are important and should be clarified,” a senior Iranian official told Reuters.

“Also he said that Iran should come clean on the past activities. This is an issue being discussed.”

A senior U.S. official confirmed that Kerry had spoke to Zarif but denied there had been any shift in the U.S. position on the need for Iran to come clean about its nuclear past. “The U.S. has consistently made clear our position on PMD, and it has not changed,” the official said.

The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China have a self-imposed June 30 deadline to finish a long term nuclear deal with Iran under which it would curb sensitive nuclear activities for at least a decade in exchange for sanctions relief.

The U.S. official said Kerry also spoke or met with the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China ahead of his Friday departure for the Vienna talks with Iran, and has kept in touch with the Israelis and Saudis as well.

(With Reuters and AFP)

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