A senior US official acknowledged Sunday that Iran nuclear talks will go past their June 30 target date, as Iran's foreign minister prepared to head home for consultations before returning to push for a breakthrough.
Iranian media said Mohammed Javad Zarif's trip was planned in advance. Still, the fact that he was leaving the talks so close to the Tuesday deadline reflected his need to get instructions on how to proceed on issues where the sides remain apart — among them how much access Tehran should give to UN experts monitoring his country's compliance to any deal.
The United States insists on more intrusive monitoring than Iran is ready to give. With these and other disputes still unresolved, the odds of missing Tuesday's target deadline for an Iran nuclear deal were worsening even before the US confirmation.
The dispute over access surfaced again Sunday, with Iranian Gen. Masoud Jazayeri saying that any inspection by foreigners of Iran's military centers is prohibited.
He said the attempt by the US and its allies to "obtain Iran's military information for years ... by the pressure of sanctions" will not succeed.
But German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who joined the talks Friday, said Iran's "nuclear activities, no matter where they take place," must be verifiable.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif met in Vienna for their third encounter since Saturday. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also is in Vienna, as is British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, while Russia and China are represented for now by deputy foreign ministers.
For weeks, all seven nations at the negotiating table insisted that Tuesday remains the formal deadline for a deal. But with time running out, a senior US official acknowledged that was unrealistic.
"Given the dates, and that we have some work to do ... the parties are planning to remain in Vienna beyond June 30 to continue working," said the official, who demanded anonymity in line with State Department practice.
Asked about the chances for a deal, Federica Mogherini, the European Union's top diplomat, told reporters: "It's going to be tough ... but not impossible." Hammond spoke of "major differences" in the way of a deal.
Steinmeier told German media: "I am convinced that if there is no agreement, everyone loses."
"Iran would remain isolated. A new arms race in a region that is already riven by conflict could be the dramatic consequence."
Both sides recognize that there is leeway to extend to July 9. As part of an agreement with the US Congress, lawmakers then have 30 days to review the deal before suspending congressional sanctions.
But postponement beyond that would double the congressional review period to 60 days, giving both Iranian and US critics more time to work on undermining an agreement.
Arguing for more time to allow the US to drive a harder bargain, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a fierce opponent of the talks — weighed in on Sunday against "this bad agreement, which is becoming worse by the day."
"It is still not too late to go back and insist on demands that will genuinely deny Iran the ability to arm itself with nuclear weapons," he said.
The goal of the talks involving Iran and the US, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia is a deal that would crimp Tehran's capacity to make nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief. Iran insists it does not want such arms but is bargaining in exchange for sanctions relief
On Saturday, diplomats told The Associated Press that Iran was considering a USc-backed plan for it to send enriched uranium to another country for sale as reactor fuel, a step that would resolve one of several outstanding issues.
Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper and Matthew Lee, Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.