8:09 pm - Tuesday November 3, 2015

No Agreement in Iran, U.S. Talks

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MUSCAT, Oman—Two days of exhaustive negotiations between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, in the Persian Gulf nation of Oman resulted in no significant breakthrough in forging a comprehensive agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear program by a Nov. 24 diplomatic deadline, said senior U.S. and Iranian officials.

“Real gaps” remain between Washington and Tehran, said an American diplomat, in describing talks that seek to end a decade-long standoff over the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

Lower-level diplomacy between the U.S., Iran and other world powers continued on Tuesday in Muscat, as Mr. Kerry arrived in China to brief President Barack Obama on the status of the nuclear diplomacy.What we’ve said about this is that we may get there and we may not,” said a senior U.S. official who traveled with Mr. Kerry, referring to he prospects for a deal by late November. “I don’t think that anybody has said at any point recently that we are, quote-unquote ’on track’ to reach an agreement by the 24th.”

Iran’s second-highest official attending the Oman talks, Abbas Araghchi, described the talks as “tense” and said his negotiating team was committed to engaging in virtually round-the-clock talks to try and reach the deadline.

“We believe that negotiations over the past two days and discussions were very useful. But we are not still in the position to say we made progress,” Mr. Araghchi told Iranian state media in Muscat. “We are hopeful we will make it, though it will be very difficult.”

The Iranian diplomat said the American delegation showed “a lot of political will and determination.”

American officials said Mr. Kerry could potentially return to Oman if it was seen as moving the diplomatic process forward. They added that there hasn’t been any discussion yet in Oman about seeking an extension of the diplomacy beyond the Nov. 24 deadline.

“We have not focused in discussions with Iran on extending those discussions because we want to keep the focus on closing gaps,” said Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser, in Beijing on Tuesday.

Tuesday’s talks in Oman involve Iran and the international diplomatic bloc called the P5+1, which includes the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany.

The diplomacy in Oman is being closely scrutinized by U.S. lawmakers in Washington and America’s Middle East allies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday hosted a news conference in Jerusalem and voiced alarm that he’d heard an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 was close to being signed.

He said he has sent letters to all the members of the P5+1 bloc to urge them not to sign an agreement that doesn’t go far enough in denying Iran the capability to make nuclear weapons. Iran insists it is program is for peaceful purposes.

“This terrorist regime in Iran must not be allowed to become a nuclear threshold power,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

American officials traveling with Mr. Kerry said they didn’t know why the Israeli leader believed an agreement was imminent.

Iran, the U.S. and other global powers are seeking to agree on a formula that will assure the international community that Tehran isn’t seeking to develop atomic weapons while still allowing it to develop a civilian nuclear program. In turn, the U.S. and European Union would be required to loosen economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s finances in recent years.

Iran and the P5+1 are scheduled to hold another round of negotiations beginning on Nov. 18 in Vienna. The diplomacy will run up to the Nov. 24 deadline.

The main sticking points in the talks, according to U.S. and European officials, are the future size of Iran’s nuclear capacity and the speed at which the Western sanctions would be removed.

The Obama administration has sought to significantly limit Tehran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel through the enrichment of uranium. U.S. officials have said Iran should only be allowed to maintain a few thousand centrifuge machines used to enrich uranium, while Iranian leaders have said they would eventually need hundreds of thousands.

Other issues that remain in dispute are the future of an Iranian heavy water reactor that will be capable of producing weapons usable plutonium when it goes on line. The U.S. and its diplomatic allies are also seeking to drastically reduce Iran’s stockpile of fissile materials.

The U.S. believes Iran has a clandestine program to develop nuclear weapons, which Tehran has repeatedly denied.

Oman has played a central role in a growing rapprochement between Iran and the U.S. over the past year. Muscat was the scene of a string of secret talks between senior Iranian and American officials starting in 2012.

They marked the beginning of the highest level diplomatic contacts between Washington and Tehran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

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