VIENNA — Iran and six world powers began a “critical” week of nuclear negotiations in Vienna still far apart despite daily contacts over the last month, a senior Obama administration official said Monday.
With the negotiating deadline of July 20 about a month away, the group held a round of nation-to-nation meetings with the Iranians last week, including an unusual session between high-level U.S. and Iranian officials.
Though the two sides have some better ideas about how they could theoretically bridge the gaps, there remain “significant differences” between them, the official said in a news briefing.
The official, who declined to be identified under administration ground rules, was unable to say that the two days of U.S.-Iranian talks had yielded progress. Those talks included two senior U.S. officials, Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns and White House foreign policy aide Jacob Sullivan.
Burns held a joint meeting during the day with officials from Iran and the European Union.
Iran and the six powers — the United States, Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China — have been seeking a deal that would ease economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs aimed at ensuring that Tehran doesn’t develop the capability to build a nuclear weapon.
The comments reinforced the impression that the two sides have been at an impasse since their meeting in May, each waiting for the other to make major concessions.
Under an interim deal reached in November, they are entitled to extend their talks for an additional six months. Yet unless negotiators can show they have made progress, a wary Congress and Iranian hard-liners may resist the request for more time.
“There are still significant gaps,” the administration official said.
“We don’t have illusions about how difficult it will be to close those gaps.
“This week is a critical one for the comprehensive negotiations,” the official said.
Although negotiators for several countries have said more time might be needed, this official said the group was not currently talking about seeking an extension.
Members see a quick completion of the talks as preferable and are pushing toward it, the official said.
The official acknowledged that any additional negotiating time would have to be agreed upon by the two sides. That could be tricky, analysts say.
The United States and Iran, the key players in the group, each badly want a deal. But if they were to come home with terms that were perceived as too lenient, they would come under fire from skeptical opponents of a deal.