Another Interim Accord Possible

Another Interim Accord Possible  Another Interim Accord Possible

Despite nearly a year of negotiations, Iran and the six major powers are unlikely to meet a November 24 deadline to reach a final deal to lift sanctions on Tehran in exchange for temporary constraints on its nuclear program, officials say.

Western and Iranian officials told Reuters the two sides would probably settle for another interim agreement that builds on the limited sanctions relief agreed a year ago as they hammer away at their deep disagreements in the coming months.

"We could see the outline of a final deal emerging by November 24 but probably not the deal itself," a Western official said.

Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, along with the European Union's former foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton are locked in talks which have shuttled between Brussels, Oman and Vienna.

Publicly all sides say it is still possible to reach a comprehensive agreement by the target date to resolve the dispute over Tehran's nuclear work, which has dragged on for over a decade.

Privately, expectations of what is achievable when senior foreign ministry officials begin the final week of talks next Tuesday in Vienna are much more modest.

"What is very likely is to reach a more detailed version of the Geneva agreement, enough to tackle the recession in Iran and also to extend the talks," a senior Iranian official said, referring to the interim accord reached in Geneva a year ago which set the current talks in train.

Some diplomats said a simple extension of the negotiations was possible, and a senior Iranian official said this could be until March. They were extended already for four months in July.

One senior Western diplomat close to the talks, who like the Iranian official spoke on condition of anonymity, insisted that the six powers were still doing everything possible to get a solid, comprehensive agreement this month as planned.

"I can categorically deny that behind closed doors ambitions are more modest," the official said. "Everyone is pushing very hard for the 24th."

***Collapse of Talks Unlikely

Western and Iranian officials said a collapse of the talks was unlikely as all sides want an end to the 12-year dispute.

The sticking points remaining are how many uranium enrichment centrifuges Iran can have and the speed of lifting sanctions, mainly on oil exports and the banking and insurance sectors.

The United States, France, Britain and Germany would like the number of centrifuges to be in the low thousands, while Tehran wants tens of thousands in operation. It now has about 19,000 installed and around 10,000 in operation.

One idea is to transfer some of Iran's enriched uranium to Russia for storage. Iranian officials said they were theoretically open to this and Western officials said it could be a step in the right direction.

A senior US official said most of the technical annexes to an agreement are complete and they are now working on the political document.

Iran is worried that the Obama administration's ability to make a deal has been severely reduced by last week's congressional elections, a European diplomat said. Republicans now control both houses of the US legislature and have taken a harder line than President Barack Obama's Democrats on Iran's nuclear program.

***Deadline in Doubt

Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) may not be able to secure a deal on Tehran's nuclear program before the November 24 deadline, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on Thursday.

"It is not completely ruled out that more time could be needed to reach a mutually beneficial compromise," Lukashevich was quoted by Interfax news agency as telling reporters.

"We have emphasized that all parties are striving to meet this deadline. But what is more important, a deadline or a real agreement?"

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said this week Moscow was doing all it could to help secure an agreement and he expressed optimism a deal could be secured before November 24.

***Key Questions Remain

France said on Thursday that important questions still needed to be resolved regarding Iran's nuclear program but that it hoped to reach an agreement by November 24.

"I hope that we will be able to achieve an agreement but there are still key questions to resolve," Reuters quoted French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius as saying at a news conference with Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni.

"I can't make any predictions at this time. I think it will only be on the day of the 24th that we'll be able to make an assessment," Fabius said.

The minister added that he was setting aside a couple of days and nights to go to Vienna if needed for the end of the Iran talks, which are due to run from November 18-24.

***Question of Choices

US Secretary of State John Kerry also said on Thursday that the US top priority in nuclear talks is to ensure that Tehran's nuclear work will remain peaceful.

Iran denies the allegation that it may have been seeking to develop the capability to build nuclear weapons, saying its nuclear program is meant only for peaceful purposes, such as electricity generation.   

"Our number-one priority on Iran is making sure that they don’t get a nuclear weapon. It’s that simple, that direct. We’re engaged in a difficult but serious negotiation toward that end. The question now is whether Iran will make the choices required to close the final gaps and provide assurances that they can’t develop and won’t develop a nuclear weapon," Kerry said, according to the website of the US Department of State.  

He also said, "Iranian leaders have said repeatedly and unambiguously that they have no intention of building a nuclear weapon. But actions have to be taken to back up those words and time is running short. The international community’s concerns are legitimate, and no agreement can be reached without addressing those concerns.

"So in the end, it is really a matter of will, not capacity. Again and again, Iran – importantly, and frankly, gratefully – has said they are not going to seek a nuclear weapon; they exclusively have a peaceful nuclear program. So proving that you have a peaceful program is really just a question of choices. And with the November 24th deadline rapidly approaching, choices are going to have to be made very soon."