Will extension of Iran nuclear talks give opening to hardliners?

Negotiators in Vienna missed today's deadline for a nuclear agreement. Some observers have expressed concern over the length of the extension announced today to reach a deal.

Joe Klamar/AP
(From left) Delegations of US Secretary of State John Kerry, Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, center right, and former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, center, sit at the negotiations table in Vienna, Austria, Monday, Nov. 24, 2014.

Iran and six world powers today pushed back by seven months their own deadline for reaching a nuclear accord, increasing the risk that anti-deal hardliners in Washington or Tehran could jeopardize a final agreement.

Foreign ministers from Iran and the so-called P5+1 group (US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) agreed to resume talks next month, with the aim of reaching a political framework by next March and a final deal by July.

“Progress was indeed made on some of the most vexing challenges we face, and we now see the path toward potentially resolving some issues that have been intractable,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said after the talks.

The US and world powers had “earned the benefit of the doubt” for more time, Mr. Kerry said, because the world was a “safer place” after Iran froze and rolled back parts of its nuclear program, under the interim deal agreed with Iran a year ago.

“We are certainly not going to sit at the negotiating table forever, absent measurable progress,” said Kerry. “But given how far we have come over the past year, particularly in the last few days, this is certainly not the time to get up and walk away.”

The fundamental challenge has been finding a mutually acceptable balance between limiting Iran’s nuclear program so it could never produce a weapon, and easing sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

Still, after 2-½ years of increasingly frenetic diplomacy – and expectations that the political cost of a second extension this year would be too high for all sides – there was surprise and concern over the length of the extension.

“I fear the longer it takes, it gives critics of a deal more time to sabotage the important progress that has been made to date,” says Kelsey Davenport, the nonproliferation analyst for the Washington-based Arms Control Association, who monitored the talks in Vienna.

“The negotiators need to remain focused on the remaining gaps and reach a deal as soon as possible,” says Ms. Davenport. “It was by no means completed, but the P5+1 was looking for ways to meet their breakout goals, and allow Iran to maintain a significant uranium enrichment infrastructure.”

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Iran and the P5+1 “made some significant progress,” but that negotiators “had to conclude it is not possible” to complete the deal by today’s deadline.

Foreign ministers spoke of “new proposals” on the table, but it was not clear what those were, or how they would change the matrix of complex negotiations. The extension effectively continues the Joint Plan of Action – an interim agreement reached in Geneva a year ago, in which Iran froze its most sensitive nuclear work in exchange for a partial easing of sanctions.

As part of the rollover, Iran would continue to receive $700 million per month in sanctions relief, while maintaining the established freeze on advanced nuclear work.

Rising highest among a host of interrelated issues, from the size of Iran's enriched uranium stockpile to the efficiency of advanced centrifuge designs, is the question of how many of Iran’s 19,000 centrifuges it will be able to keep in a final deal. Of those installed, only about half of them are currently running. 

Nonproliferation experts say the issue is more atmospheric than technical, with compromise numbers between 4,000 to 8,000 being discussed.

“There are still gaps on the centrifuge [numbers],” says Davenport of the ACA.

“Centrifuges have become symbolic of the deal’s success. I don’t think those gaps have a technical basis, so much as a political symbolism, which  has made it difficult for both sides to move forward,” says Davenport. “They have boxed themselves in by an issue unwarranted by proliferation concerns.”

Please follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott 

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