Iran Deal Seems Imminent

VIENNA (AP) -
Secretary of State John Kerry walks on the terrace of Palais Coburg, the venue for nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria, on Sunday.  (REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger)
Secretary of State John Kerry walks on the terrace of Palais Coburg, the venue for nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria, on Sunday. (REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) and State Department Chief of Staff Jon Finer (L) meet with members of the U.S. delegation at the garden of the Palais Coburg hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria, Friday. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) and State Department Chief of Staff Jon Finer (L) meet with members of the U.S. delegation at the garden of the Palais Coburg hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria, Friday. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Negotiators at the Iran nuclear talks plan to announce Monday that they’ve reached a historic deal capping nearly a decade of diplomacy that would curb the country’s atomic program in return for sanctions relief, two diplomats told The Associated Press on Sunday.

The senior U.S. official declined to speculate as to the timing of any agreement or announcement but said “major issues remain to be resolved.”

Despite the caution, the negotiators appeared to be on the cusp of an agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who on Thursday had threatened to walk away from the negotiations, said Sunday that “a few tough things” remain in the way but added “we’re getting to some real decisions.”

En route to Mass at Vienna’s gothic St. Stephens Cathedral, Kerry said twice he was “hopeful” after a “very good meeting” Saturday with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who had Muslim services Friday. The two met again early Saturday evening.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also was cautiously optimistic, telling reporters Sunday: “I hope that we are finally entering the last phase of this negotiation.”

In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani said an agreement was close, but not quite done, declaring: “We are still steps away from reaching the intended peak.” In another sign that a deal could soon be sealed, Russian news agencies reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had arrived in Vienna. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was also expected later in the day.

Movement toward a deal has been marked by years of tough negotiations. The pact is meant to impose long-term, verifiable limits on nuclear programs that Tehran could modify to produce weapons. Iran, in return, would get tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief.

The current round of nuclear talks is now in its 16th day and has been extended three times since the first deadline of June 30 was missed. The mood among negotiators had turned more somber each time a new target date — first July 7, then July 10 and then July 13 — was set.

As the weekend approached, Kerry declared the talks couldn’t go on indefinitely and warned that the U.S. could walk away from the negotiations.

Diplomats familiar with the talks said most of the nuts and bolts of implementing the deal have been agreed upon. But over the past week, issues that were previously on the back burner have led to new disputes. Among them is Iran’s demand for a lifting of a U.N. arms embargo and its insistence that any U.N. Security Council resolution approving the nuclear deal be written in a way that stops describing Iran’s nuclear activities as illegal.

A diplomat familiar with the negotiations said disagreements also persist on how long some of the restrictions on imports of nuclear technology and other embargos outlined in any new Security Council resolution will last. The diplomat, who demanded anonymity because the diplomat wasn’t allowed to discuss the confidential talks, said restrictions will last for years, not months.

Meanwhile, Iranians were preparing to celebrate in the event of an agreement. Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency reported that deputy police chief Brigadier General Saeed Montazer al-Mahdi said the authorities are fully prepared for such celebrations.

Despite Kerry’s relatively upbeat take, comments by Iran’s supreme leader suggested that Tehran’s mistrust of Washington would persist no matter what the outcome of the talks.

Iran’s state-run Press media cited Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Saturday as calling the U.S. an “excellent example of arrogance.” It said Khamenei told university students in Tehran to be “prepared to continue the struggle against arrogant powers.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce opponent of what he considers a deal that is too lenient on Tehran, said Khamenei’s comments showed that Western powers are “caving” in to Iran even as the Islamic republic keeps railing against them.

A nuclear deal will also face serious scrutiny from members of Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other congressional leaders expressed doubts Sunday, predicting President Barack Obama could face hurdles in Congress if negotiators reach a final deal.