Iran nuclear deadline deal in jeopardy

Iran, the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China included the 20 July deadline to reach a pact.

FILE: Iran, the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China included the 20 July deadline to reach a pact. Picture: AFP.

NEW YORK/ANKARA - It is increasingly unlikely that six world powers and Iran will meet their 20 July deadline to negotiate a long-term deal for Iran to curb its nuclear programme in return for an end to economic sanctions, diplomats and analysts say.

In theory, an extension to the high-stakes talks should not be a problem if all sides want it.

But President Barack Obama would need to secure Congress' consent at a time of fraught relations between the administration and lawmakers.

Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China included the 20 July deadline to reach a comprehensive agreement in an interim deal they reached in Geneva on 24 November.

The November agreement allowed for a six-month extension if more time was needed for a final deal to end sanctions on Iran and remove the threat of war.

An extension would allow up to half a year more for limited sanctions relief and limits on Iranian nuclear work as agreed in Geneva.

To avoid an open conflict with Congress, Obama would want US lawmakers' approval to extend that sanctions relief.

The latest round of talks in Vienna last month ran into difficulties when it became clear that the number of enrichment centrifuges Iran wanted to maintain was well beyond what would be acceptable to the West.

That disagreement, envoys said, can be measured in tens of thousands of centrifuges.

As a result, the latest round of Vienna talks broke off last month with Tehran and Western powers accusing each other of being unrealistic.

While talk of an extension could be a negotiating tactic, members of both sides appeared to favour the idea.

IRAN REFORMS AT STAKE

Failure of the talks would strengthen the position of hard-liners in Iran's clerical establishment against President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist who has sought to improve relations with the United States.

The countries broke off ties during a hostage crisis after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

"Rouhani has put all his eggs in this basket. Failure of the talks means failure of reforms in Iran," an Iranian official close to Rouhani's government said.

If there is an extension, the Obama administration will seek the blessing of Congress.

US officials voiced confidence to Reuters they would ultimately get it, but it appears it would not come without a fight.

Members of Congress are already expressing concern about a possible delay.

Republican Representative Kerry Bentivolio said last week that Obama had not updated lawmakers on the Vienna talks frequently enough.

To get an extension, he said, "Iran must make real and meaningful concessions and convince us it is not simply stalling."

Privately, administration officials said they believed members of Congress were unlikely to risk the blame for torpedoing the talks. "They (Congress) don't want to take the blame for destroying a deal," one US official said.