London and Vienna, Asharq Al-Awsat—Diplomats from Iran and six world powers arrived in Vienna on Tuesday for key last-ditch talks on the future of Iran’s nuclear program, only days before a self-imposed deadline for a final accord is due to expire.
US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif joined EU representative Catherine Ashton in the Austrian capital for the talks, together with representatives from France, Russia, China, Germany and the UK. US Secretary of State John Kerry will arrive later this week, after spending Tuesday in London meeting with the foreign ministers of UK and US allies in the Middle East.
While Iran maintains that its nuclear activities are entirely peaceful, and is seeking relief from crippling international economic sanctions, the US and its allies have sought to pressure Iran to accept limits on its nuclear program, including curbs on the number of centrifuges used for enriching uranium, in a bid to ensure that Iran cannot divert material to an atomic weapons project without being detected.
This week’s talks are the culmination of over a year of intense diplomacy aimed at ending the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, which has been a source of serious international tensions and the center of a major international dispute between the US, its allies and Iran for over a decade.
Although recent negotiations have ironed out some differences between the two sides and brought an agreement closer, reports say there are still key issues to be resolved ahead of the November 24 deadline.
On Monday, one US official told Reuters news agency: “We have continued to make some progress in the course of these negotiations but we still have gaps to close and we do not yet know if we will be able to do so.”
The same official said it would be “difficult, but possible” to reach an accord by November 24, and denied that both sides had discussed extending the deadline.
Even if the text of a final agreement is reached at the Vienna talks, it will still need to be approved in Washington and Tehran, which presents its own problems.
Adding to the pressure on diplomats set to begin this week’s talks has been mounting domestic political pressure in both the US and Iran. In the US, Republican and Democratic legislators have threatened to impose fresh sanctions on Iran, which some analysts say will effectively torpedo any deal.
Congressional pressure is also likely to be a factor in determining the scope and timing of any sanctions relief offered to Iran, which will be a key part of any agreement.
In Iran, the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final oversight over matters of foreign and defense policy, has expressed skepticism that a deal can be reached and also faces pressure from hardliners determined to resist any concessions.