Nuclear talks set to move past deadline amid signs of Iranian backtracking

World powers and Iran prepared to move past Tuesday’s deadline for a comprehensive nuclear agreement, with officials suggesting significant backtracking by Tehran’s negotiators that may need several more days of discussions to resolve.

VIENNA — World powers and Iran prepared to move past Tuesday’s deadline for a comprehensive nuclear agreement, with officials suggesting significant backtracking by Tehran’s negotiators that may need several more days of discussions to resolve.

On a day that served as an early intermission in the negotiation, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met the head of the U.N. nuclear agency in Vienna while Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif received his latest guidance from leaders in Tehran. Zarif was scheduled to return to the talks Tuesday, followed by the arrival of Russia’s top diplomat.

Monday was originally envisioned as the penultimate day of a 20-month process to assure the world Iran cannot produce nuclear weapons and provide the Iranian people a path of out of years of international isolation. But officials said over the weekend they were nowhere near a final accord, and Zarif flew back to his capital for further consultations.

Several signs pointed toward Iranian intransigence and perhaps even backsliding on a framework it reached with world powers three months ago. At a briefing for some three dozen, mainly American, reporters, a senior U.S. official repeated several times that the final package must be based on the April parameters — “period.” The official declined to elaborate because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy; reporters were updated on condition no individuals be quoted by name.

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced he would soon travel to Vienna following a phone conversation between his boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and U.S. President Barack Obama. Their talks Tuesday also will encompass efforts to fight Islamic State extremists, Lavrov said.

At the United Nations, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters that no new target date has been set for concluding the nuclear talks, which would set a decade of restrictions on Iran’s enrichment of uranium and other activity in exchange for tens of billions of dollars in relief from international economic sanctions.

Fabius, who was in Vienna over the weekend, repeated his country’s red lines for an agreement: stricter limits on Iranian research and development, capacity for U.N. nuclear monitors to verify the deal and the ability of world powers to snap sanctions back into place quickly if Iran cheats. In addition to France, Russia and the United States, other negotiating countries are Britain, China and Germany.

France’s conditions are essentially the same as America’s, whose diplomats have conducted the bulk of the negotiations with Iran since a series of secret talks between the countries two years ago and then the election of moderate-leaning President Hassan Rouhani. Iran insists its program is for energy, medical and research purposes, but much of the world suspects it of harbouring nuclear weapons ambitions.

The U.S. official said many of the trickiest issues involved in the negotiation remained unresolved. These have been described by others as the level of inspections Iran will grant International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, how fast the U.S. and its partners would lift sanctions on Iran, and the exact restrictions on Iranian research of advance nuclear technology.

While the seven nations will continue working beyond their original June 30 deadline, the U.S. official stressed that there is no talk of a long-term extension. The official added that it would not surprise the parties if talks drag on further past the deadline than they did for the framework pact. In that case, negotiations wrapped up talks April 2, two days after a March 30 deadline.

The current effort is more difficult. Now, diplomats must settle every element of an agreement.

As an example, U.S. officials cited Iran’s planned heavy water reactor at Arak, which negotiators agreed in April would be redesigned so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium. But that still doesn’t resolve who will manage the program, certify the new design, monitor compliance and take care of the facility’s heavy water and spent fuel.

And other matters are more complicated and contentious at this point than the Arak plant, the officials said.

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