VIENNA — Secretary of State John Kerry, after negotiating here for 13 days straight without an agreement, said Thursday enough progress had been made toward a nuclear pact with Iran to keep pursuing a deal that can “withstand the test of time.”
His comments came as the United States and other countries at the negotiating table in Vienna faced yet another self-imposed deadline Friday morning, one they were unlikely to meet. But extending negotiations beyond it could complicate President Obama’s effort to rally support in Congress for any final agreement.
The United States and its allies are seeking to persuade Iran to agree to new restrictions on its nuclear program, including capping its ability to manufacture weapons-grade plutonium — something Kerry hopes could not only reduce international nuclear tensions but begin to reshape one of the world’s most volatile regions. In return, crippling sanctions on Iran would be lifted, pumping tens of billions of dollars into its economy.
Amid delicate talks, and even as both sides began to position themselves to avoid blame if they collapse, Kerry emphasized he would not be bound by a short-term timetable if he believes an agreement is within reach.
At the same time, following a 90-minute strategy session on the phone with President Obama Wednesday night, Kerry said he is willing to end the process soon if the effort seems fruitless.
But as the days have turned into weeks in Vienna, Kerry’s balancing act — displaying both hope for an agreement and tough resolve to walk away if circumstances demand it — becomes more difficult.
Kerry has been praised for his endless energy as the nation’s chief diplomat, while also criticized by Republicans who accused him of rushing to make a deal. His posture now is one of near-epic patience, blowing past multiple deadlines and remaining in one city far longer than has been typical in his two-and-a-half year tenure.
“We would not be here continuing to negotiate just for the sake of negotiating,” Kerry said in a brief statement as the sun began to set Thursday over the 19th Century palace where negotiators have huddled in ornate rooms for countless hours.
“We’re here because we believe we are making real progress toward a comprehensive deal,’’ he said. “We will not rush, and we will not be rushed.”
Still, as Kerry tries to achieve a legacy-building pact with deep implications for Middle East diplomacy, he said that he and Obama “are not going to sit and negotiate forever.” He added: “It’s not open-ended.”
Just before Kerry spoke, his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif delivered a similar message.
“We’re working hard, but not rushed, to get the job done,” he wrote on Twitter.
But later, in what could develop into a major setback, a senior Iranian official reportedly accused the United States of walking back on several commitments.
Nonetheless, negotiators continued working into the night Thursday, in what Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius of France compared to the final stretch of a marathon.
If they had met their deadline of midnight, it would limit a congressional review period of the agreement to 30 days. Missing the deadline means the period will double to 60 days, giving opponents more time to mobilize against any deal.
“I would much rather they take time on the remaining issues and make sure they do the very best they can to get them as good as they can,” Senator Bob Corker, a Republican of Tennessee and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CBS News.
Corker, the architect of the legislation that established the congressional review, has been one of the leading critics of the negotiations, warning that Kerry and Obama are on the brink of making a bad deal that would permit Iran to have the capacity to build a nuclear weapon.
“I’d rather they delay than end up in making what’s been a very downward trend the last couple of months even more downwardly trending,” he said Thursday. “So I’m glad they are taking their time.”
The diplomatic routines have become so repetitive that Kerry earlier Thursday compared the negotiations to the time-stands-still film “Groundhog Day.”
The secretary has been negotiating for nearly two years. He flew to Vienna on June 26, hoping to put the finishing strokes on an agreement that lower-ranking officials had spent months preparing.
Talks were initially supposed to conclude by June 30. But once negotiators realized they wouldn’t make it, they stretched it to July 7, signaling at the time they wanted to make the congressional deadline at midnight Thursday. Kerry did not set any new deadlines when he spoke Thursday.
Zarif, shouting to reporters while he stood on the hotel’s terrace, said he was willing to stay “as long as necessary.”
Many of the most difficult issues — including procedures for lifting sanctions on Iran and a probe into any past efforts by the nation to seek a nuclear weapon — appear to have come close to resolution.
But one remaining snag is over the lifting of an arms embargo. Iran, joined by Russia, has been pushing for the United Nations to lift an embargo on the weapons that Iran can import and export.
While the six nations involved in the talks with Iran — the United States, joined by Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia — have generally kept up a united negotiating front, the arms embargo has caused some divisions. The United States and its European partners have adamantly opposed lifting the embargo, while Russia and China, who could benefit through arms sales to Iran, have been more amenable.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, told reporters Thursday that there were no “insurmountable problems” remaining, but he emphasized that Russia supported Iran on one of the last issues.
“We are in favor of lifting the embargo as soon as possible and will support a decision made by Iran’s negotiators,” Lavrov told reporters while briefly at a conference in the Russian city of Ufa.
“Iran is a consistent supporter of the struggle against ISIS and lifting the arms embargo would help Iran to advance its efficiency in fighting terrorism,” he added, referring to an acronym for the Islamic State.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.