With the original deadline looming this weekend, the group of six world powers led by the United States agreed to extend the deadline for a deal on Iran's nuclear program until November.
According to Reuters, "The countries agreed to extend the high-stakes negotiations by four months, and let Iran access another $2.8 billion of its cash frozen abroad during that period, though most sanctions on the Islamic Republic stayed in place."
We reported last weekend that progress had been slow since the original short-term agreement was reached late last year, with American officials voicing skepticism that a permanent deal was possible by the July 20 deadline. But speaking on Meet the Press last Sunday, Iran's Foreign Minister, Mohhamad Javad Zarif, said, "We don't see any benefit in Iran developing a nuclear weapon."
Officials from the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, and Iran met in Vienna this week. In its report on the deadline extension, Reuters cited an unnamed "Western diplomat" as saying that "there had been some progress during nearly three weeks of marathon discussions" in the Austrian capital, but that differences remained.
Now, the countries will have until November 24 to come to a permanent agreement on enrichment levels for a peaceful, civilian-use nuclear program in Iran.
"These few months until November could be the last and best chance for a long time to end he nuclear argument peacefully," Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Saturday, according to Reuters.
While the interim deal will be extended until November, most of the sanctions still in effect will not be loosened during that time.
"Iran will not get any more money during these four months than it did during the last six months, and the vast majority of its frozen oil revenues will remain inaccessible," Secretary of State John Kerry said, adding that "we will continue to vigorously enforce the sanctions that remain in place."
Despite the extension and hopeful rhetoric, other events may threaten the possibility of a permanent deal. Tensions between Russia and the West were ratcheted up after the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines commercial flight over Ukraine on Thursday. The Daily Beast's Josh Rogin reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin called Iran's President, Hassan Rouhani, after the incident, with the Kremlin saying that the two "exchanged views on the state of talks on Iran's nuclear program" and "also examined bilateral cooperation matters of mutual interest, including joint projects in the oil and gas sector and in peaceful nuclear energy."
As Rogin points out, the Iranian nuclear deal remains a high-priority item on President Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda and could now be a casualty of the soured relationship with Russia.
According to the Washington Post, the promising latest round of negotations has gotten stuck on the question of what Iran's nuclear program would look like going forward.
"The goal, one diplomat said, is to allow Iranian leaders to claim success while circumscribing Iran's nuclear abilities to a point that would make a weapon very difficult to manufacture. That diplomat, who demanded anonymity to describe the emerging deal, acknowledged that the likely outcome -- if an agreement can be brokered at all -- is not an absolute guarantee that Iran will never make a weapon."
But as tensions heighten over the crisis in Ukraine, Obama might also face pressure from a Congress increasingly wary of giving Iran any second chances. Reuters quoted an American official as saying that "we understand Congress' desire to hold Iran's feet to the fire," but added sanctions, perhaps a political necessity, could push Iran away from the negotiating table for good.
The diplomats will "reconvene in the coming weeks," to discuss the permanent deal on Iran's nuclear program, according to a joint statement from Zarif and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton.
[photo: Scrape TV]