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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Iran nuke negotiators look to extend talks past deadline

International negotiators plan to extend talks over Iran's nuclear program past a midnight deadline into Wednesday, a State Department official said. 
‎"We've made enough progress in the last days to merit staying until Wednesday. There are several difficult issues still remaining," spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement. 
An Iranian negotiator, meanwhile, said his team could stay "as long as necessary" to clear the remaining hurdles. 
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest suggested that talks meant to produce an outline that would allow the sides to continue negotiations until the June 30 final deadline had not bridged all gaps. But he said that the sides were working to produce a text with few specifics, accompanied by documents outlining areas where further talks were needed.
Such a development could risk the ire of Congress, which had agreed to hold off on pursuing new sanctions while negotiations were underway. 
The Associated Press reported earlier that, according to officials, the U.S., Iran and five world powers were preparing to issue a general statement agreeing to continue talks in a new phase aimed at reaching a final agreement to control Iran's nuclear ambitions by the end of June. 
Originally, international negotiators were working against a Tuesday at midnight (6 p.m. Eastern Time) deadline to reach the framework for a deal. But the negotiators later softened that, so they were aiming for a mere framework understanding, between Iran and the so-called P5+1 nations -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. 
After intense negotiations, obstacles remained on uranium enrichment, where stockpiles of enriched uranium should be stored, limits on Iran's nuclear research and development and the timing and scope of sanctions relief among other issues. 
The joint statement would be accompanied by additional documents that outline more detailed understandings, allowing the sides to claim enough progress has been made thus far to merit a new round, the officials told the AP. Iran has not yet signed off on the documents, one official said, meaning any understanding remains unclear. 
Without a clear framework, however, the Obama administration could face rising pressure from Capitol Hill -- which, in turn, could create turbulence in the talks themselves. 
The talks have already been extended twice as part of more than a decade of diplomatic attempts to curb Tehran's nuclear advance. 
The softening of the language from a framework "agreement" to a framework "understanding" appeared due in part to opposition to a two-stage agreement from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Earlier this year, he demanded only one deal that nails down specifics and does not permit the other side to "make things difficult" by giving it wiggle room on interpretations. 
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been meeting with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in the Swiss town of Lausanne since Thursday in an intense effort to reach a political understanding on the issue. 
Kerry and others at the table said the sides have made some progress, with Iran considering demands for further cuts to its uranium enrichment program but pushing back on how long it must limit technology it could use to make atomic arms. In addition to sticking points on research and development, differences remain on the timing and scope of sanctions removal, officials told the Associated Press. 
Adding another layer of complexity to the difficult negotiations, The Wall Street Journal, citing Western officials, reported late Monday that there are signs that Khamenei has not granted his negotiators the power to budge from their positions on certain critical issues. 
In particular, the Journal reported that Khamenei has repeatedly insisted that U.N. sanctions be lifted immediately once any deal takes effect. By contrast, the U.S. and the other nations involved have proposed that sanctions would only be lifted gradually and be tied to Iran living up to promises it has made in any agreement. 
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Monday that Iran's expectations from the talks are "very ambitious" and not yet acceptable to his country or the other five negotiating. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov left the talks on Monday and planned to return only if the prospects for a deal looked good. 
The Obama administration says any deal will stretch the time Iran needs to make a nuclear weapon from the present two to three months to at least a year. But critics object that it would keep Tehran's nuclear technology intact. 
Tehran has said it is willing to address concerns about its stockpiles of enriched uranium, although it has denied that will involve shipping it out of the country, as some Western officials have said. One official said on Monday that Iran might deal with the issue by diluting its stocks to a level that would not be weapons grade. 
Over the past weeks, Iran has moved from demanding that it be allowed to keep nearly 10,000 centrifuges enriching uranium, to agreeing to 6,000. The officials said Tehran now may be ready to accept even fewer. 
The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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