US Secretary of State John Kerry held out hope of a last-minute nuclear deal with Iran Thursday, as he prepared to add his diplomatic muscle to talks aimed at overcoming deep differences with Tehran over the size and scope of its future atomic activities.
After landing in Vienna, Kerry planned meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif and former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on the sidelines of the talks that face a Monday deadline. US officials said he would assess the situation and then decide on additional meetings and whether to stay in Vienna through the weekend. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius planned to join the talks on Friday.
Senior negotiators are working on an agreement to reduce the potency of Iran's nuclear program and slow its technical ability to produce atomic weapons. Iran insists it has no interest in making such arms but is negotiating because it wants an end to international sanctions meant to force an end to programs that could be used for such a purpose.
Before arrival, Kerry expressed hope that a deal could be forged by the Monday target date and said negotiators "are not talking about an extension" with Iran despite expectations that differences are too great to be bridged in the next four days. However, he acknowledged that some elements of an agreement might not be completed by the deadline.
"We do want to get an agreement, but not just any agreement," Kerry said after meeting in Paris with the Saudi and French foreign ministers. "We hope that the gaps that exist — and they do exist — can be closed. We hope we can define the finish line."
Kerry had been expected to join the Vienna negotiations, but the timing of his arrival at the talks had been uncertain until shortly after he arrived in Paris after two days of similar meetings in London with his British and Omani counterparts.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who leads the Russian delegation at the talks, also said that none of the negotiating parties were discussing an extension. Other countries negotiating with Iran are China, Britain, France and Germany.
At the same time he told the ITAR-Tass news agency that "the talks are ... in (an) extremely tense situation." While chances of reaching a deal seem difficult, "we shouldn't miss a chance," he added.
Many, if not all of the foreign ministers of the powers at the table with Iran were also expected to converge on Vienna by the weekend. Still, signs increasingly pointed to the Nov. 24 deadline passing without a deal and the negotiations being extended a second time.
In London on Tuesday and Wednesday, Kerry met with Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi of Oman, a key bridge between Washington and Tehran, a senior US official said.
Kerry's meetings with Fabius and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal are considered critical because French objections last year delayed the adoption of an interim agreement by several weeks, and Saudi Arabia remains deeply concerned about the potential for its archrival Iran to win concessions from the West.
Like Saudi Arabia, Israel has deep concerns about Iran and expressed hope Thursday that the talks would fail to reach an agreement, giving more time for a deal that would cut into Iran's uranium enrichment and other projects that could be used to make nuclear weapons.
"We believe that no deal might pave the way — might very likely pave the way — for a better deal in the future if the pressure on Iran is preserved or increased because the Iranians badly need it," said Yuval Steinitz, Israeli minister for intelligence and strategic affairs. "It's very, very likely that after a few months or after a year the Iranians will come back to the world and say, 'OK, let's give it another try. We are ready to make significant concessions this time.'"
The Obama administration also is trying to satisfy the concerns of lawmakers, Republican and Democratic, at home.
Republican senators sent a letter to the White House on Wednesday urging the administration against trying to circumvent Congress in any deal with Iran. "Unless the White House genuinely engages with Congress, we see no way that any agreement consisting of your administration's current proposals to Iran will endure," said the letter, which was signed by all 45 Senate Republicans.