VIENNA — A yearlong effort to reach an enduring accord with Iran to dismantle large parts of its nuclear infrastructure fell short Monday, forcing the United States and its allies to declare a seven-month extension, but with no clear indication of why they think they can ultimately overcome the political obstacles that have so far blocked a deal.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry told reporters that a series of “new ideas surfaced” in the past several days of talks. He added that “we would be fools to walk away,” because a temporary agreement curbing Iran’s program would remain in place while negotiations continued.
In return, Iran will receive another $5 billion in sanctions relief, enabling it to recover money frozen abroad — something that is likely to add to the threat of new sanctions from the newly elected Republican Congress.
Frustrations were visible on both sides. American officials said they remained hopeful a deal could still be worked out, but they worried that Iran’s negotiating team, and Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, who came to office on the promise of obtaining a nuclear deal, did not seem to have the latitude to make the kind of political decisions necessary — and they could not see how that would change.
Rouhani, for his part, went on national television with a mixed message of reassurance and defiance, telling Iranians that eventually there would be a deal that ended the sanctions, but also casting the outcome in a victory narrative, saying “the centrifuges are spinning and will never stop.”
But the fundamental problem remained: Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has yet to signal that he is prepared to make the kind of far-reaching cuts in Iran’s enrichment capability that would be required to seal an accord. And it is unclear that his view will change before a March 1 deadline for reaching a political agreement, the first phase in the seven-month extension.
“Is it possible in the end we won’t reach an agreement?” Kerry said in a news conference hours before the deadline Monday night. “Absolutely.”
But he also indicated that the United States and Iran, along with Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia would only then turn to the question of whether a diplomatic path that President Obama has so long insisted upon can succeed.
“These talks are not going to get easier just because we extend them,” Kerry acknowledged. “They are tough, they’ve been tough, and they are going to stay tough.”
Officials said little about the new approaches they were now exploring with Iran, other than to indicate that “experts” — presumably at the Energy Department’s national laboratories — would be studying them to see whether they, in combination with other steps, would result in at least a year’s warning if Iran raced for a weapon. That is the standard that the United States has set.
That suggested the approach involves a combination of Iranian commitments to ship some of its nuclear stockpile to Russia, efforts to disconnect some of the country’s centrifuges in ways that would take considerable time to reverse, and limits on output that could be verified by international inspectors.
“It’s a lot of moving parts,” said one European diplomat involved in the discussions, “and the question is what it adds up to.”
Kerry went out of his way to compliment the lead Iranian negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif. US officials have described Zarif as a creative diplomat who is forced to navigate Iran’s treacherous politics — and uncertain how far the country’s supreme leader will let him go.
He and Rouhani came to power promising an end to the sanctions that have reduced Iran’s oil revenue by roughly 60 percent, crashed its currency, and made overseas financial transactions almost impossible.
But Zarif was also arguing, to the end here, that the sanctions must be lifted permanently and almost immediately, rather than being suspended, step by step, as Obama has insisted. When Obama publicly rejected that approach in an interview broadcast Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” it seemed to drive home the fact that an accord was simply impossible.
For both Rouhani and Obama, the next seven months may be difficult to manage. Opponents of concessions of any kind have been gaining strength in both countries.
Rouhani has been facing significant opposition to his agenda, and Zarif was clearly, in the words of one US official, “on a very tight leash” in the last days of the negotiation.
Obama, for his part, will no longer be able to rely on Democratic leaders in the Senate to bottle up legislation that would require new sanctions.
Kerry said his negotiating team is already arguing for time for the negotiations to play out, arguing that Iran has far less capability now than it did a year ago, before the interim accord, called the “Joint Plan of Action,” required it to blend down its most potent nuclear fuel — closest to bomb grade — and to halt the installation of new centrifuges.