Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme are lurching towards another deadline with diplomats reconvening amid uncertainty and vague pronouncements from participants.
As the talks entered a 13th day in Vienna, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his nation is preparing for a “post-sanctions” era, suggesting that a deal may be in sight to curb the country’s nuclear programme in exchange for the removal of economic sanctions.
His foreign minister, meanwhile, said on Twitter that “with mutual respect, anything possible”.
“We’re always making progress. We’re going to resolve the last issues – if we can,” US energy secretary Earnest Moniz told reporters while meeting his Iranian counterpart Ali Akhbar Salehi, who responded more optimistically. “Hopefully, today is the last day,” Mr Salehi said.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov also voiced optimism and said he was prepared to return to Vienna.
“On the basis of the principles of gradualism and reciprocity, we have come close to a final agreement, it is within the bounds of the attainable,” he said.
In another hint that the talks might soon wrap up, the White House issued a brief statement late yesterday saying President Barack Obama had conferred with the US negotiating team through a secure video call.
Mr Obama provided them with “guidance related to our ongoing efforts to achieve a good deal between the P5+1 and Iran that meets our requirements,” it said.
The P5+1 comprises the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – and Germany.
The last time Mr Obama held a secure conference call with his negotiators on the road was shortly before the framework for a final accord was reached on April 2 in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The current round of talks has blown through two deadlines already and has been extended until Friday, but the Obama administration must submit an agreement to Congress before Thursday turns to Friday in Washington if it wants to avoid an extended legislative review.
If the administration misses that target, the congressional review period will double from 30 to 60 days, possibly delaying the sanctions relief that the US would have to give to Iran under the terms of an agreement.
US secretary of state John Kerry, still nursing a broken leg, has been in Vienna since June 26, while Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has made one short trip to Tehran for consultations.
Other foreign ministers have come and gone, however all but the top diplomats from Russia and China were present at today’s meetings.
On Wednesday, Mr Moniz met Mr Salehi for more than three hours, indicating that problems remained that only technicians could solve.
When the talks missed their second deadline it raised new questions about the ability of world powers to cut off all Iranian pathways to nuclear weapons through diplomacy.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, spoke of “tense” moments, and the US state department extended the current interim nuclear arrangement with Tehran through Friday.
And new difficulties also have surfaced over the past few days. Iran is pushing for an end to a UN arms embargo on the country but Washington opposes that demand.
Obama has said the United States would walk away from the negotiating table rather than sign a bad deal.
While congressional Republicans and Mid East allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia remain sceptical, Senate Democrats who met with Mr Obama at the White House on Tuesday night said they were confident he would only accept a “good deal”.