VIENNA — Diplomats from Iran and five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) have reached an agreement to extend the Iran nuclear deal talks for four more months, diplomats said here late on July 18.
The agreement on terms to extend the negotiations until Nov. 24, 2014, came after all-day talks that stretched to midnight.
"While we have made tangible progress on some of the issues … there are still significant gaps on some of the core issues which will require more time and effort," European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a joint statement at a press conference early July 19.
During the four-month extension, "We will continue to halt the progress of Iran's nuclear program in key areas," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.
Under the terms of extension agreed to in Vienna Friday, Iran has agreed to convert all of its 20% oxide material into fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, Kerry said.
"Once the 20% material is in fuel form, it will be very difficult for Iran to use this material for a weapon in a breakout scenario," Kerry's statement said. In return, the P5+1 "will continue to suspend the sanctions we agreed to under the JPOA [Joint Plan of Action] and will allow Iran access to $2.8 billion of its restricted assets."
Talks had dragged into the night as negotiators from the United States and Iran sought to hash out the terms for a four-month extension that they could sell at home amid some disappointment that a final deal would not be reached by the initial July 20 deadline.
Most of the meetings on Friday were between lead US negotiator Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Iranian Deputy Foreign Ministers Abbas Araghchi and Majid Ravanchi.
Emerging from the successful talks to reach an extension early July 19, Araghchi told Al-Monitor, “We’ve made very good progress.”
“We have a text, a draft, of [possible comprehensive deal] solutions,” Araghchi said. “We have discussed the details of each and every question. We know possible solutions much better. On each and every issue, all the parties are very serious.”
About prospects for reaching a final accord in the next four months, Araghchi said he was hopeful, but not too optimistic. “We know the differences are serious,” Araghchi said. “We need to work more creatively … and try to find fresh solutions.” Difficult decisions will be needed in the coming negotiations, he said. Reaching a final accord will ultimately “take creativity, wisdom, good will — and a bit of good luck.”
The Obama administration wants to sell Congress on a four-month extension — until roughly Nov. 20 — by negotiating favorable terms. Those might include, for instance, Iran taking further steps to turn its oxidized 20% uranium into fuel plates in exchange for limited sanctions relief.
Negotiators from Iran, where much of the Iranian public was hoping for a deal and greater economic relief, will also want to come home with something to show for the months of intense, grueling diplomacy, as well as the steps Iran has taken to restrain its nuclear program, albeit temporarily, under the interim deal reached in Geneva last November, the JPOA. Iran’s implementation of the JPOA has exceeded expectations, including in Israel, White House officials have told Washington sources in recent days, as they have sought to start building support for a likely extension to the difficult negotiations with Iran.
Diplomats expect the extension terms to be hashed out in the coming day or two, even as the gaps that have prevented a comprehensive deal from yet being reached remain daunting.
The main obstacle to a final deal being clinched this week after over two weeks of nonstop talks concerns wide gaps over the position between Iran and the six world powers over what should be the size of Iran’s enrichment capacity in a final deal, and what the duration of that deal should be.
Iran’s negotiators continue to argue the West should seize the opportunity to make a deal that would provide sufficient monitoring and verification to prevent it from breaking out to make weapons-grade fuel for a nuclear weapon, even as it allows far more enrichment than the Western powers believe is necessary for Iran’s needs in the near term.
Iran would like to keep its current enrichment capacity of operating about 10,000 centrifuges for the next few years, and then to expand its program to make fuel for the Bushehr power reactor after a Russian contract to supply fuel for it expires in 2021, after about seven years.
The P5+1 believes Iran should operate a more limited enrichment program to fuel its research reactors and make medical isotopes, but to continue to buy fuel for its power reactors from Russia until after confidence in the intent of its program is restored.
All parties agree that Iran will be free to choose its enrichment capacity size after the deal expires, but the duration of the deal is another subject for the final deal talks.
"What we have tried is to provide possibilities," said a diplomat at the talks speaking not for attribution. "Possibilities for a solution that take into account the realities on the ground to ensure Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful."
Editor's Note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication.