VIENNA—Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that the United States and Iran may fail to reach a final nuclear agreement despite the talks being extended past their June 30 deadline so that the sides could hash out remaining differences over the scope and scale of the Islamic Republic’s contested nuclear program.
Western observers suggested the statement from Kerry was designed to provide cover for the administration if a deal with wide-ranging concessions to Iran is struck.
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Kerry told reporters in a brief press conference Sunday afternoon that he is prepared to leave town without a deal that has been viewed as the Obama administration’s biggest foreign policy priority.
"I want to be absolutely clear with everybody: We are not yet where we need to be on several of the most difficult issues," Kerry said. "And the truth is that while I completely agree with Foreign Minister [Javad] Zarif that we have never been closer, at this point, this negotiation could go either way."
"If hard choices get made in the next couple of days and made quickly, we could get an agreement this week. But if they are not made, we will not," Kerry said.
Critics of the administration were not impressed by Kerry’s tough stance.
Asked by the Washington Free Beacon about Kerry’s remarks, one Western observer present in Vienna visibly rolled his eyes and said, "If the State Department thinks they’re fooling anybody, they are literally the only ones who think that."
U.S. officials and diplomats have been quiet in public, declining to brief reporters on record about the status of the talks and what a final deal could look like.
If a deal is not reached by July 7, it is expected that the world powers and Iran will not make one.
"If we don’t get a deal, if we don’t have a deal, if there’s absolute intransigence, if there’s an unwillingness to move on the things that are important, President Obama has always said we’ll be prepared to walk away," Kerry said.
The secretary also defended a virtual news blackout that has left reporters with very little insight into the status of the critical talks.
"In the coming hours and days we’re going to go as hard as we can. We are not going to be negotiating in the press," Kerry said. "We’ll be negotiating privately and quietly. And when the time is right, we will all have more to say."
Asked if he thinks a deal in attainable in the announced time period, Kerry demurred.
"Right now we’re aiming to try to finish this in the timeframe that we’ve set out," he said. "That’s our goal and we’re going to put every bit of pressure possible on it to try to do so."
Shortly after Kerry’s remarks, he walked back into another meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif.
Iranian officials also remained quiet over the weekend, but have hinted that disagreements remain over the future scope of Iran’s nuclear program and the timetable in which international sanctions will be removed.
Wire reports have claimed in recent days that the United States and Iran are close to sorting out the sanctions issue, which has remained one of the most contested issues in the talks.
U.S. lawmakers and other critics have expressed repeated concerns that Iran will pocket billions of dollars in sanctions relief while doing little to stop its most controversial nuclear work.
Meanwhile, Iran announced on Sunday that Russia had agreed to supply it with a range of naval equipment.
"Talks between the Iranian delegation and the Russian side were held at the International Maritime Defense Show (IMDS) in St. Petersburg on Saturday. They spoke about boosting bilateral military-technical cooperation, including on deliveries of a wide range of naval equipment and armaments," an Iranian military official was quoted as saying in the country’s state-run press.