No target date as Iran faces off with global powers in psychological game
VIENNA - In a game of high-stakes diplomatic brinkmanship, global powers were readying Wednesday for a late-night push to reach a deal curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions and ending a 13-year standoff.
With all bets off after ministers missed yet another deadline to seal the accord, US Secretary of State John Kerry was huddling with his team in a rainy Vienna to pore over documents seeking to find a way forward.
Iran and six world powers have now effectively given themselves until Friday to reach a deal by extending the terms of a November 2013 interim accord, after missing two target dates in this round of talks now in their 12th day.
But as they stare each down, both Iran and the United States have now insisted there is no target date, and they plan to keep talking in Vienna until a deal emerges or not.
"It's doable by tomorrow night (Thursday) if talks advance this evening," said a Western diplomatic source.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and his British counterpart Philip Hammond were due back in the Austrian capital later Wednesday, to pow-wow once more with Kerry and Iran's top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif.
"You always get to a place where you're at a precipice," a senior US administration official said late Tuesday just hours after the talks were prolonged.
Asked when the teams would know whether to keep talking or to walk away, the official replied: "You know when that moment comes."
"You're either going to pull back from the precipice, or you're going to go over the cliff."
The Western diplomatic source admitted: "It's a psychological game too."
"Zarif is under a lot of pressure. We'll see in the final analysis if we have hit a wall or not."
Observers say it is hard to believe that after almost two years of intense and tough negotiations the talks could collapse.
All sides have insisted they are not planning a formal months-long extension of the talks, and one clear success has been the 2013 interim deal under which Tehran has frozen parts of its nuclear programme in return for minor sanctions relief.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest praised the interim accord on Tuesday, saying it "essentially opened the door to these broader talks. And what it did was it froze Iran's nuclear program in place. It rolled it back in some key aspects."
In another twist to the talks, if Kerry fails to hand over a deal by the end of Thursday, US lawmakers will get 60 days instead of 30 to review it which may delay its implementation.
But Earnest brushed aside the congressional deadline, recalling lawmakers would be in recess for most of August anyway, and adding: "We welcome additional scrutiny of the deal."
The mooted accord would curb Iran's nuclear programme for a decade or more in order to deny the country the ability to develop nuclear arms.
Despite progress on a main deal and a series of complicated annexes, negotiations have stalled on how to ease sanctions against Iran, probing allegations that in the past Tehran did try to develop nuclear arms and ensuring Iran can continue to have a modest, peaceful nuclear programme.
Iran has also insisted there should be changes to a UN arms embargo and an easing of restrictions on missile sales.
While Iran had managed to develop its own arms industry, global powers "must change their approach on sanctions if they want a deal," the country's lead negotiator Abbas Araghchi said.
But the US official insisted there would be "ongoing restrictions on arms just like there will be ongoing restrictions regarding missiles".