VIENNA—Secretary of State John Kerry spent hours locked behind closed doors with Iran's foreign minister early Friday as both sides rushed to reach a final nuclear agreement that sources say is becoming increasingly elusive as a result of Tehran's intransigence.
As the United States seeks to impose clear and verifiable limits on Iran's nuclear research work ahead of a Nov. 24 deadline, the Iranians have refused to cede any ground and are publicly insisting that its "inalienable" nuclear rights must be recognized under any final deal.
Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spent several hours Thursday night and several more on Friday morning meeting in private, according to a senior State Department official. There is no indication yet that major headway has been made between the sides.
The foreign ministers from the negotiating countries, including the United States and Iran, are all gearing up to leave Vienna today, according to one source familiar with the status of the talks. While it remains unclear at this point if the leaders will return in the coming days, some have speculated that Zarif could be conveying the parameters of a tentative deal with higher-level officials in Tehran.
Any agreement that it is reached is likely to pave the way for another extension in talks as final details continue to be hashed out, the source said.
With neither the United States nor Iran appearing publicly before reporters in Vienna and answering questions, insiders in Washington and Vienna are becoming increasingly skeptical that the Obama administration will be able to deliver a deal the American people and Congress will find acceptable.
"The Iranians have refused to budge on the most basic elements—they want to keep the entire fuel cycle, and do so at a level that will allow them to breakout [with a nuclear weapon] whenever they choose so quickly no one will be able to stop them," said one senior foreign policy strategist currently in Vienna for the talks.
The Obama administration is poised to ink a deal that includes many concessions to Iran before the Monday deadline comes around, according to a senior congressional aide who works on the issue of Iran.
"As Iran digs its heels against dismantling its enrichment program, eliminating its plutonium 'bomb factory' at Arak, and coming clean on its nuclear weapon, the worry is that the Obama administration will make more massive concessions and move to grant 'nuclear amnesty' to the terror-supporting mullahs in Tehran before Monday," the congressional aide told the Washington Free Beacon.
"The Clinton administration gave 'nuclear amnesty' to North Korea in 1994 and North Korea exploded its first nuclear bomb little more than a decade later. So we've all seen this charade before," warned the congressional source.
Many watching the talks unfold in Vienna remain skeptical that Iran will even hold up its end of any bargain that may be reached.
"If Iran agrees to something, history shows they will be lying—it will be the only time in 25 years Iran would not be secretly cheating on its nuclear obligations," said the foreign policy strategist. "At this point, it seems that only more pressure will get Iran to dismantle its plutonium bomb factory and enough of its illicit nuclear infrastructure to assure us, our allies, Congress, and the American people that Iran won't have the capability to build nukes."
If Kerry and his team fail to deliver a deal that restricts many of the most controversial aspects of Iran's nuclear program, Congress is likely to step in and impose new economic sanctions on Tehran—an outcome that will likely lead Iran to abandon any further negotiations.
"Without that [type of deal], there will be more sanctions on Iran, not fewer as Tehran seeks," the source explained. "Even if that means a period of increased tension, Tehran won't race ahead and will be back at the table soon, or it will soon again face a balance of payments crisis and economic default."
However, Kerry's version of a likely deal differs drastically from these parameters, which also are supported by a majority of Congress.
The Obama administration only hopes to delay Iran's ability to produce a nuclear weapon by about a year, according to U.S. officials quoted by the New York Times.
Congressional leaders have called this unacceptable, with many in the Senate promising to veto any final deal that caves to Iran's demands to continue its nuclear enrichment regime.
"We are now just a few days away from the Iran nuclear deadline. And the P5+1 appear poised to accept a weak deal with a regime that cannot be trusted," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) said on Thursday. "Despite approximately $14 billion in direct sanctions relief, as well as incalculable indirect benefits to the Iranian economy and the nuclear program, Iran has repeatedly stated that it will never stop enriching uranium or take one step back in its research and development."
General Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, told Congress Thursday afternoon that the White House's goals with Iran are flawed. Even if Tehran's program is stalled, the U.S. intelligence community is not capable of detecting an Iranian nuclear bomb, Hayden said.
"Because of the covert nature of Iran’s activities, American intelligence alone will not be able to verify the agreement," Ros-Lehtinen reiterated. "It is impossible to verify Iran’s nuclear program because as the Defense Science Board report has said, the capability to detect Iran’s undeclared or covert nuclear sites is either inadequate or does not exist."
Meanwhile, Kerry is scheduled to meet with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond later Friday afternoon.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry will travel from Vienna to Paris Friday evening for consultations with his European counterparts. It is unknown whether or not he will return to Vienna before the Nov. 24 deadline, a sign talks are at an impasse and western delegations will plot the way forward.