With a deadline for a nuclear deal between Iran and Western powers less than 24 hours away, the negotiators have started talking about a second extension.
Quoting unnamed State Department officials, Reuters and the Associated Press report that Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Sunday and discussed the possibility of extending negotiations past the Monday deadline.
For months, the two sides have been trying to hammer out a historic accord curbing Iran's nuclear programs. The P5+1 — the U.S., Russia, China, U.K., France and Germany — want to extend Iran's "breakout time," or the time it would take the country to enrich enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon, while Iran wants to continue enriching for civilian purposes and wants the United States and its allies to lift its economic sanctions.
Over the course of the negotiations, the relationship between the United States and Iran has warmed. That was most evident when President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke on the phone a year ago. The phone call was the first time the heads of state of the two countries had talked since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
In November, the two countries announced a historic, temporary deal that paused some of Iran's nuclear programs in hopes that a longer-term deal could be hammered out this year. The original deadline was extended. And after a flurry of negotiations at high levels of government this week, it seems likely to be extended again.
"'Our focus remains on taking steps forward toward an agreement, but it is only natural that just over 24 hours from the deadline we are discussing a range of options both internally and with our P5+1 partners (six powers),' a senior State Department official said on condition of anonymity.
"'An extension is one of those options,' the official added after Kerry and Zarif met in the Austrian capital. 'It should come as no surprise that we are also engaged in a discussion of the options with the Iranians.'"
While not necessarily surprising, it's important to note that both sides have insisted that they would not issue a second extension. The Wall Street Journal reports that this time around — especially with Obama's party losing the Senate — an extension will be a tougher sell.
The paper reports:
"A fundamental challenge may be more in justifying why an extension won't turn the diplomatic effort into what Europeans once derisively called "talks for the sake of talks." ...
"There are a few key issues dividing the sides. Most notable are the cap on Iran's future nuclear enrichment activities, the timing of sanctions relief, limits on Iran's future nuclear research, and the length of an agreement.
"Diplomats suggest that while much has been said about areas of basic agreement since July, there have been few major advances on key outstanding differences. Several Western diplomats have said the Iranian team appears not to have the political flexibility to cut tough compromises on these highly sensitive issues at this stage. (Iranian officials have on their side consistently complained of excessive Western demands)."