Nuclear Brinkmanship at Iran Talks Puts Deadlines Into Play

By Jonathan Tirone, Kambiz Foroohar and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan

(Bloomberg) – Foreign ministers negotiating an Iran nuclear deal are on the verge of missing deadlines that could delay the energy-rich Persian Gulf nation’s return to markets.

The first self-imposed deadline, which expires Tuesday at midnight, may be prolonged by diplomats at the Vienna talks including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The second, July 9, was imposed by Congress to streamline review of a possible deal.

“The entire agreement right now is at the mercy of a miscalculation on either side,” said International Crisis Group analyst Ali Vaez in a Vienna interview. “There won’t be a deal until the last minute, while each side waits for the other to blink first.”

After almost two years, diplomats say they’re closer than ever to sealing an accord that would help Iran lift sanctions and boost trade. In return, the six powers are insisting on terms that would restrict the country’s ability to clandestinely make nuclear weapons. Iran, which holds the world’s second- largest natural gas reserves and fourth-largest oil stockpile, has always insisted its program is peaceful.

Early on Tuesday, Tehran’s reformist Etemaad newspaper reported agreement on the main body of the accord and four out of five annexes. The sides are still negotiating a fifth one that concerns a proposed United Nations Security Council resolution that would legitimize Iran’s enrichment program and lift UN sanctions. Relief from U.S. and European Union sanctions would be granted separately.

‘Not There Yet’

Kerry and Zarif continued meeting with counterparts from China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K. at the Palais Coburg in the Austrian capital. Lower-level officials and technicians worked through the night, according to an official at the talks.

Iran’s interlocutors say while differences have continued to narrow, agreement isn’t assured by the deadline.

“We’re not there yet,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in Washington. Officials have been trying to temper optimism that a deal was imminent.

Diplomats have already missed four of their self-imposed deadlines in November 2013, July 2014, March 2015 and on June 30. Failure to reach an accord by July 9 would extend the necessary Congressional review period to 60 days from 30 days.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which would need to verify and monitor any accord, agreed on a plan that will give inspectors more leeway to clear-up past suspicions, Iran’s Mehr News cited Iranian spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi as saying.

Iran and the five-member IAEA team agreed on ways to “facilitate technical interaction,” Kamalvandi said. The IAEA reported over the weekend it can clear up suspicions about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past by year’s end.

Should negotiators meet their deadlines, it would set the clock ticking on reciprocal steps between Iran and the six powers that could see “substantial” sanctions relief by December, according to one diplomat. Other officials said Iran may not get significant sanctions relief until 2016.