(Updates with U.S.-Iran meeting in the third paragraph.)
July 2 (Bloomberg) -- Iran and world powers have 18 days left in Vienna to bridge the impasse over the Persian Gulf nation’s nuclear work.
Ten months after U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani opened the door to negotiations with a historic phone call, their emissaries are meeting in the Austrian capital in a bid to negotiate a deal before their temporary accord expires on July 20.
The European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, met with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif today, EU spokesman Michael Mann said in an e-mail. They were joined for talks later by U.S. delegation chief, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be named because the session was private.
“We’re hopeful that we can make progress in narrowing those gaps and pursuing that comprehensive solution, but the Iranian side is going to have to take additional steps that it should be able to take,” U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said at a news briefing yesterday in Washington. “This has been a top priority for our administration.”
The stakes are high for Iran and world powers as negotiations wind down. Iran’s economy, driven by the world’s No. 4 oil reserves, has been wracked by sanctions limiting trade and undermining its currency. For the world powers, failure to peacefully resolve suspicions over Iran’s nuclear program could build on mounting Middle East tensions spreading from Syria to Iraq.
“Unless the negotiators start exploring ways to reconcile interests, not positions, they are unlikely to be able to bridge the gap before July 20,” Ali Vaez, an Istanbul-based International Crisis Group analyst, said in a written reply to questions. “In the absence of a broader bargain on the regional standoff between Iran, its neighbors and the West, any resolution of the nuclear issue will be at best fragile.”
In an English-language video posted online today, Zarif called the nuclear issue a distraction preventing world powers from working with Iran to solve “common challenges” in the region.
“The decisive time approaches when the temporary nuclear deal could be turned into a global solution,” Zarif wrote in today’s Le Monde newspaper. “I press them to not allow illusions to derail a process that will allow an end to a pointless crisis and an opening to new horizons.”
While the sides have made progress toward increasing transparency into Iran’s nuclear work and modifying a reactor to render it less capable of making nuclear weapons, gaps remain over the amount of enriched uranium the country should produce. Iran wants capacity to produce more fissile material for power plants. The U.S. wants Iran to reduce existing enrichment abilities and cap future expansion.
In his op-ed in the French newspaper, Zarif warned the U.S. and its European allies against repeating “missed opportunities” and pointed to a two-year span of negotiations from 2003 until 2005. Those talks crumbled after European negotiators rejected an Iranian offer to limit to 3,000 the number of operating centrifuges -- the fast-spinning machines that enrich uranium. Today, Iran has 19,000 such devices.
“No one can go back in time,” Zarif said. “Sacrifices were made, our capacities are today considerably different. No one can make them disappear with a wand.”
It’s “crunch time” for negotiations, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Twitter. Delegates foresee “a very busy -- and very important -- few weeks,” she said.
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said there are no guarantees that “one of the most challenging foreign-policy issues of our day” can be solved this month in Vienna. Negotiators have the option of extending their interim six-month accord, agreed to in November, by another half year.
“An intensive effort will be required by all sides,” Hague said in an e-mailed statement. “If Iran is willing to take the steps needed, significant economic benefits will follow.”
--With assistance from Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington.