US, Iran racing against the clock for nuclear deal

US, Iran racing against the clock for nuclear deal
After 18 months of nuclear negations between the US and Iran, John Kerry says that it "time to get it done", in a bid to agree the outlines of a deal by 31 March.
4 min read
15 March, 2015
Sanctions on Iran were first imposed in 1979 and expanded by the US in 1995(Getty)

Iran and the US were racing against the clock Sunday to close in on a nuclear deal with US Secretary of State, John Kerry, saying it was "time to get it done" after 18 months of intense negotiations.

"If (Iran's nuclear programme is) peaceful, let's get it done. And my hope is that in the next days, that will be possible," Kerry, in Egypt but due to join the talks in the Swiss city of Lausanne later Sunday, said.

Washington wants Iran to scale down dramatically its nuclear programme in order to extend to at least a year the "breakout" time that Iran would in theory need to produce a bomb's worth of fissile material.

     The aim is not just to get any deal, it is to get the right deal.

- John Kerry. 

The Islamic republic, denies wanting nuclear weapons, saying its nuclear programme is for purely peaceful purposes.

The target is for Iran and six world powers, the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, to agree the outlines of a deal by 31 March and to fine-tune the details by 1 July.

Added time pressure comes from the fact that Iran makes its new year on 21 March, after which the country effectively closes down for 10 day. US Republicans are also teeing up legistlation that could kill the whole process. 

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayaatollah Ali Khamenei is due to make a closely watched speech on Saturday.

"We believe very much that there's not anything that's going to change in April or May or June that suggests that at that time a decision you can't make now will be made then," Kerry told CBS television. 

Rouhani thaw

The nuclear standoff has lasted more than a decade, but the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani resulted in a minor thaw and the past 18 months have seen an unprecedented diplomatic effort.

Under a landmark November 2013 interim deal, Tehran stopped expanding its activities in return for minor sanctions relief. Since then the parties have been pushing for a lasting accord.

But to the alarm of Israel, US Republicans and Washington's Gulf allies, the US looks to have abandoned insisting that Iran dismantles all nuclear activities, tolerating instead a small programme under tight controls.

     The letter made everyone in the world wonder about the worthiness of dialogue with the US government. 

- Ali Larijani.

Ali Larijani, head of the Islamic Shura Council of Iran, said that, “The Islamic Shura Council approves the request to place further oversight on Iran’s nuclear activities, provided all sanctions imposed on the country are lifted". 

In theory, this still leaves Iran with the possibility to get the bomb, critics say, and last week 47 Republicans took the explosive step of writing an open letter to Iran's leaders. 

They warned that any deal could be modified by the Congress or revoked "with the stroke of a pen" by whomever succeeds President Barak Obama, a Democrat. 

This followed a barnstorming address to US lawmakers on a Republican invitation by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who faces a battle to be re-elected Tuesday, when he warned against a deal.

Larijani, reacted to the letter saying that it "prove how support for Zionism influences the policy of the US government".

"The letter made everyone in the world wonder about the worthiness of dialogue with the US government, and adversely affected the US position in the international order", he added.

The letter provoked a storm in Washington with Obama saying he was "embarassed" for the signatories, while Washington's allies in its talks with Iran were also unimpressed.

"The negotiations are difficult enough, so we didn't actually need further irritations," German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier said.

And Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who arrived in Lausanne on Sunday morning, joining US negotiators, said it "told us that we cannot trust the United States."

Zarif, is due to travel to Brussels on Monday for a meeting with the European Union Foreign Affairs Coordinator, Federica Mogharini, which will also be attended by the foreign ministers of Germany, Britain, and France, according to the official Iranian news agency (IRNA).

Kerry on Saturday sought to allay concerns, saying the aim was "not just to get any deal, it is to get the right deal". 

No third extension

Some progress has been made towards a final deal, but the two sides remain far apart on several issues.

These include the future size of Iran's uranium enrichment capacities, which can make nuclear fule, but also the core of a bomb, the pace at which sanctions would be lifted and the accord's duration. 

"We've really made progress, particularly in the last weeks, but there are still some very difficult issues," a European diplomat involved in the talks said.