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Why Iran nuclear talks suddenly look like US-Iran faceoff

As several foreign ministers left Switzerland for home capitals Wednesday, the talks largely came down to their two key participants: Iran and the United States.

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Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif walks through a courtyard at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel during an extended round of talks, April 1 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Negotiations over Iran's nuclear program appeared headed for double overtime on Wednesday, beset by competing claims after diplomats abandoned a March 31 deadline for the outline of a deal and agreed to press on.

Brendan Smialowski/AP

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As international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program passed a Tuesday night deadline and several world powers’ foreign ministers left Switzerland for home capitals, the talks Wednesday largely came down to their two key participants: Iran and the United States.

Talks with Iran that have been under way since November 2013 among six major powers – the US, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany – suddenly looked more like a US-Iran faceoff. The overnight transformation reflects how this week’s deadline for reaching a “framework agreement” over recent weeks became a do-or-die target for the US, even as other powers in the talks have remained fixed on the end-of-June deadline for reaching a final deal.

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The March 31 deadline that came and went Tuesday was largely an American priority fashioned to quiet political opposition to a deal at home, and to boost President Obama’s realist strategy of engaging Iran as a rising power in the Middle East.

"The deal has a lot to say about the future of the US-Iran relationship," says Thomas Pickering, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and seasoned US diplomat.

Congress may be on recess, but both Republican and Democratic leaders have promised quick action on pending legislation on Iran once the House and Senate reconvene April 14. One piece of legislation would impose a new round of sanctions on Iran, a move the White House says would almost certainly doom the diplomatic effort to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.   

That helps explain why Secretary of State John Kerry remained in Lausanne for a seventh day of negotiations Wednesday with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – even as the French, Russian, and Chinese foreign ministers decided to decamp and leave their portfolios in the hands of aides and technical experts.

Prospects for some kind of initial accord Wednesday appeared mixed. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that “not enough” progress had been made to warrant an agreement, and that he would only return “if necessary.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said upon his departure that efforts to resolve the standoff with Iran “will have been wasted” if the talks failed to continue moving forward.

And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted even as he left that ministers had reached enough “agreement on all key aspects of a final agreement” to “put down in writing” a statement on the parameters for a final accord in June.

The key ministers’ departures underscored a rising frustration over how the talks have become increasingly pegged to American interests.

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On the one hand, some world powers have increasingly chafed at the notion that the talks aimed at prohibiting Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon should be tailored to the Obama administration’s need to fend off a Republican-controlled Congress that remains highly skeptical of any deal with Iran.

On the other hand, some powers in the talks have grown dubious of Mr. Obama’s priority on reaching a deal with Iran as part of a grand scheme – a goal first laid out in the president’s 2009 inaugural address – to extend a diplomatic hand to Tehran.

The French in particular have insisted on more stringent controls on Iran’s nuclear program than the Americans and demanded tougher conditions for lifting sanctions – with some officials suggesting France does not have the same motivations as Obama and would not hesitate to block what it considered a weak deal.

The Iranians have sent mixed signals about the importance of reaching a “framework agreement” on the way to concluding a final accord. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said the only real deadline is the one in June. But it is also clear that the government of President Hassan Rouhani is keen on reaching the outline of a deal now as a means of signaling to Iranians that better days lie ahead.

As what was increasingly called the “American deadline” approached, and then passed, reminders mushroomed that the real deadline for reaching a signed and sealed deal with Iran is June 30. That fact is likely to surface in any statement or deal announced this week.

But as ensuing talks recede from global center stage and shift to nailing down the technical details and complex timetables of a final accord, world powers may find themselves recalling within a few weeks why the March 31 deadline ballooned into something so important.