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Kerry to press Iran to make 'critical choices' for nuclear accord

US Secretary of State John Kerry and European foreign ministers are working to assess whether an Iran nuclear deal can be reached by the July 20 deadline.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry disembarks from his aircraft after arriving at Kabul International Airport in Kabul, July 11, 2014. Kerry is expected to meet with Afghanistan's President Kharzai as well as both candidates in Afghanistan's recent presidential election.    REUTERS/Jim Bourg    (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3Y34K

VIENNA — US Secretary of State John Kerry and European foreign ministers will join Iran nuclear talks here July 13 to review progress in the negotiations and assess whether it will be possible to close remaining gaps to reach a final Iran nuclear accord later this month.

Kerry “will see if progress can be made on the issues where significant gaps remain and assess Iran's willingness to make a set of critical choices at the negotiating table,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. Kerry will then report back to President Barack Obama “about next steps” in the negotiations.

Kerry is expected to arrive in Vienna on July 12 from Afghanistan. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have also announced they will attend.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, currently traveling with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Latin America, will not come at this point due to a scheduling conflict.

Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, also returned to Vienna on July 11.

The US statement on Kerry’s joining the talks suggested that, without last-minute concessions by Iran, Washington is going to have to consider pivoting soon to prepare to negotiate a possible extension of the talks, which could involve significant complications. Among them, a possible renewed congressional push for sanctions that could derail the sensitive negotiations at a critical juncture.

But a spokesman for lead international negotiator Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, firmly insisted an extension was not being considered at this point.

The parties are still working “with determination” to conclude the deal by the July 20 deadline, Ashton’s spokesman Michael Mann told Al-Monitor July 11. The point of the ministerial meeting is "to take stock of where we are in the talks."

The ministers are coming "to assess how close or how far" a deal is, one Washington expert source briefed this week by the Obama administration on the talks, and speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor July 11. "If they are going to extend the talks, they probably need to make that decision [as] early [as] next week." Key members of Congress have been asked to keep their schedules open for mid-next week to be consulted on the negotiations, as they have requested to be.

While important gaps remain, "they are making progress on several key issues," the Washington expert stressed. Among the areas where the Iranians had shown flexibility are the uncompleted Arak research reactor, the Fordo site, their stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium and possible military dimensions (PMD) to their program, US sources said. 

Kerry is coming to Vienna on Saturday, before the other ministers, and is likely to be able to meet alone with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The main obstacle to a deal concerns the size of Iran’s enrichment program in a final deal. Iran wants to be able to expand its enrichment program to provide fuel for the Bushehr power reactor after a Russian contract supplying fuel for it expires in 2021. Iran insists that it should not be forced to depend on outside powers for its power needs.

The United States and five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), however, reject the argument that Iran needs industrial level enrichment in the near or medium term, and fear the stance could be a cover for Iran wanting to maintain a latent capability to quickly produce weapons-grade fuel in the future if it chose to do so. The P5+1 have proposed that Iran have a more limited enrichment program suitable for providing fuel for its research reactors, and that it continue to buy its nuclear fuel from Russia for the duration of a deal, after which it would be able to decide whether to buy fuel from abroad or produce it domestically.

But arms-control experts say there are ways to meet both parties’ concerns.

“The key to resolving this impasse is to prove that Iran can rely on Russian-made fuel to operate Bushehr without interruption,” George Perkovich, arms control expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in the Washington Post July 11. “To this end, Russia and the other negotiating states should offer to send, on a rolling basis and starting as soon as possible, several years’ worth of Bushehr fuel to Iran,” where it could be stored safely under IAEA supervision.

“With fuel stockpiled, Iranian technicians could focus on research and development to produce more efficient centrifuges to make fuel for future, indigenously built Iranian power plants,” Perkovich said. “If Iran’s leaders said no to a deal along those lines, the Iranian public and the rest of the world would conclude that something other than peaceful requirements was at issue.”

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