VIENNA- Six world powers and Iran try Thursday to get troubled nuclear talks back on track after a day of discussions led by US Secretary of State John Kerry yielded no breakthrough.
With six weeks left until a deadline to strike a deal, Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif held six hours of talks in a Vienna hotel room on Wednesday until after 10:00 pm.
Kerry was scheduled to leave Austria on Thursday morning, but Zarif remained for talks with negotiators from the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany chaired by EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton.
"Everyone has been working incredibly hard... these are incredibly complex negotiations, the detail is extraordinary," a senior US State Department official said late Wednesday.
"Until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed, and you can get 98 per cent of the way, and the last two per cent may kill the entire deal." Zarif told online news site al-Monitor that the gaps were "narrowing, but we still have a long way to go." "It is reconcilable, provided everyone makes the tough decisions," he said.
The US official insisted that pushing back the November 24 deadline - as happened with an earlier target date of July 20 - to give more time was not under discussion.
"We have not discussed an extension. We believe in keeping the pressure on ourselves," the official said on condition of anonymity.
"Deadlines help people to make hard decisions, and there are hard decisions to be made here. And we must." The deal being sought, after a decade of rising tensions, is meant to ease concerns that Iran might be able to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of its civilian programme.
To do this, the "P5+1" powers want Iran to scale down dramatically the scope of its atomic activities, offering in return relief from painful sanctions, but Iran is resisting this.
Iran denies seeking to build the atomic bomb and says it wants to expand its nuclear programme in order to generate electricity and treat cancer patients.
More time on the clock
In months of discussions since an interim agreement struck last November took effect in January, some progress has been made.
This includes changing the design of an unfinished reactor at Arak so that it produces less weapons-grade plutonium, on enhanced UN inspections and on the fortified Fordo facility.
The main bone of contention however remains Iran's enrichment capacity, a process rendering uranium suitable for power generation but also, at high purities, for a nuclear weapon.
Other thorny areas include the pace at which sanctions would be lifted, the timeframe that an accord would cover, and a stymied UN probe into past suspect "military dimensions" of Iran's activities.
Many analysts have begun to believe that the November deadline might be extended, maybe locking in measures related to Arak and Fordo.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that the November deadline was not "sacred", in the strongest suggestion yet from one of the P5+1 powers.
Zarif said Wednesday "more time might be needed" and President Hassan Rouhani said Monday that if "not able to solve all the problems, the two camps will find a solution".
Echoing Lavrov, Russia's lead negotiator Sergei Ryabkov, who held Thursday bilateral talks with the Iranians, said that "the result is more important than the date".
"Obviously, every new extension, if there are discussions about it at any stage, will be more difficult than the previous one, and the risk of total failure also increases," RIA Novosti quoted him as saying, however.