US extends nuclear talks with Iran

Negotiations over Iran's nuclear weapons program will be extended an additional four months, Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Friday.

The United States and other world powers, including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, had set a July 20 deadline for a final agreement with Iran. But with prospects for a deal before Sunday dimming, the world powers have agreed to push that deadline until November 24.

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"Diplomacy takes time, and persistence is needed to determine whether we can achieve our objectives peacefully," Kerry said in a statement. "To turn our back prematurely on diplomatic efforts when significant progress has been made would deny ourselves the ability to achieve our objectives peacefully, and to maintain the international unity that we have built.

"While we’ve made clear that no deal is better than a bad deal, the very real prospect of reaching a good agreement that achieves our objectives necessitates that we seek more time."

The extension is sure to face a firestorm of opposition on Capitol Hill, which could explain why it was announced late Friday evening, long after members of Congress had dispersed for the weekend and while most of the world's and Washington's attention was on the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight near the Russia-Ukraine border.

A senior U.S. official expressed confidence, however, that the administration would be able to convince skeptical leaders in Congress and Israel that the extension was a good idea.

The official said that public disagreements with Israel were due in part to a fragile negotiating process with Iran that prevented the U.S. from reading leaders there in on all the details of the negotiations that preceded the talks.
 
"There was not full transparency at every juncture with Israel," the official said, adding the U.S. "endeavored over the past six months to be much more transparent."
 
The official said that the Iranian compliance with the joint agreement "has over-performed in many respects," making an extension an easier sell to the Israelis.
 
The White House has also been "consulting with Congress very actively" in recent years, the official said. Moreover, the administration believes that the additional concessions offered by Tehran on converting its enriched uranium offers "added value" that will make the extension more attractive to lawmakers.
 
"What we are able to say to Congress today is there are very specific areas where we have made concrete progress," said the official.

According to the State Department, the U.S. will continue to suspend some sanctions during the additional four-month period of negotiations, while Iran will retain access to $2.8 billion in restricted assets.

"Let me be clear: Iran will not get any more money during these four months than it did during the last six months, and the vast majority of its frozen oil revenues will remain inaccessible," Kerry said. "And, just as we have over the last six months, we will continue to vigorously enforce the sanctions that remain in place."

As part of the extension, Iran agreed to dilute the remainder of its 20 percent enriched uranium into fuel form, making it more difficult to weaponize. Tehran has also agreed to maintain the freeze of its nuclear weapons program.

"It will be very difficult for Iran to use this material for a weapon in a breakout scenario," Kerry said. "Attempting to do so would be readily detected by the IAEA and would be an unambiguous sign of an intent to produce a weapon."

A second senior administration officials said that negotiators would be leaving Vienna, without a firm date for resuming talks.
 
"Everyone needs to take the time to go back to capitals and think about what has happened here," the official said.
 
In a joint statement, European Union representative Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the talks will resume in the coming weeks in hopes of reaching a deal "at the earliest possible moment.”
 
"While we have made tangible progress on some of the issues and have worked together on a text for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, there are still significant gaps on some core issues which will require more time and effort," they said. 

Earlier this week, President Obama touted "real progress" in the nuclear talks and suggested that an extension of the deadline was imminent.

"It's clear to me that we've made real progress in several areas and we have a credible way forward," Obama said.

Obama said Iran had "met is commitments under the interim deal we reached last year," when the country agreed to enter the talks and freeze its nuclear program in exchange for the easing of some sanctions.

The president said while "some significant gaps" between the international community and Tehran remained, there was reason for optimism.

Under the inital deal, unveiled six months ago, Iran agreed to enter talks and freeze its nuclear program in exchange for a rollout of some sanctions.

But the move drew criticism from some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and the extension of the talks is certain to face vocal opposition.

Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are reportedly circulating a letter asking their fellow senators to support a plan that would require Iran to agree to at least two decades of inspections before Congress agrees to ease financial sanctions.

Earlier this year, Menendez and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) presented legislation that would cut Iranian oil exports and restrict the administration's ability to ease sanctions. That effort was ultimately blocked by Democratic leadership.

Asked about the Menendez legislation, a senior administration official said the White House continued to believe "there should not be any sanctions legislation passed during the negotiation period."
 
"Were the United States to impose additional sanctions unilaterally, we would be concerned that would put at risk the P5+1 unity," the official said.
 
The official said that "we understand the desire of those in Congress to hold Iran's feet to the fire," but that original concerns with congressional interference remained.
 
Leaders in Israel have also expressed grave concern over the negotiations, arguing Tehran is using the sanctions relief to bolster the Iranian economy while having little intention of actually sacrificing its nuclear program.

During an appearance on CBS News on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would only be satisfied if negotiator were able “to replicate the Syrian deal” and fully dismantle and remove all nuclear weapons capabilities from Iran.

He said he did not think a freeze of Iran’s weapons program and the installation of monitors would be to the benefit of the U.S. and its allies.

“I think a bad deal is actually worse than no deal,” Netanyahu said.

— This story was last updated at 8:43 p.m.

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