LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program are expected to push into Wednesday, U.S. officials said, as diplomats blew past a self-imposed deadline for an agreement and struggled to reach consensus on the difficult issues of sanctions, enrichment research and future constraints.
The Obama administration had set March 31 as a deadline for a broad political agreement. But the decision to keep talking suggests negotiators believe an agreement of some form is still possible.
“We’ve made enough progress in the last days to merit staying until Wednesday,” said the State Department’s acting spokesperson, Marie Harf. “There are several difficult issues still remaining.”
Earlier, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington that negotiators had determined “they’re going to continue these conversations tomorrow” if necessary and will talk “as long as the conversations continue to be productive.”
Earnest also said that President Obama was being closely briefed on the talks and would likely speak directly Tuesday with U.S. negotiators, who are led by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
In a strong indication that an agreement might be imminent, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flew back to Lausanne to take part in the last stretch of talks on Tuesday. He had left the negotiations on Monday, saying he would return only when there was a “realistic” chance of a deal.
The negotiations over Iran’s nuclear future have stretched on for more than a decade. In the current talks, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia have been seeking restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program that would extend for a 15-year period, in exchange for a phased easing of the international sanctions that have hamstrung its economy.
Blocking Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons has been a top priority of the White House since Obama assumed office in 2009 and, before that, under President George W. Bush.
Kerry, who spent Monday in meetings that dragged on until close to midnight, began the day Tuesday at 6 a.m. with a working breakfast with the U.S. negotiating team. At 7:30 a.m., the Iranians started meeting with diplomats from all six nations conducting the negotiations.
Even at the 11th hour, wide differences had remained over the pace at which sanctions would be lifted, and what limits might be imposed on Iran in the final years of a 15-year accord.
“I’ve been telling the German media we’re in a bit of a crisis with the talks,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told a BBC reporter at the breakfast buffet.
The deadline of midnight in Switzerland, or 6 p.m. Eastern time, was self-imposed. When talks were extended in November, Kerry said that if the parties did not have a broad agreement by the end of March, Obama would have to reassess whether to continue the negotiations.
Members of Congress had threatened to expand sanctions against Iran if there was no progress. The White House has warned that that could push Iran to walk away from the table entirely and resume its nuclear program full tilt.
But several of the other countries negotiating alongside the United States have not felt such urgency, and pointed out the real deadline is June 30 when an interim agreement expires.
As the deadline approached, the negotiators worked to settle some core issues: What kind of nuclear research would Iran be allowed to pursue in the final five years of a 15-year accord? When can the United Nations’ sanctions be eased? Will the sanctions be lifted or merely suspended so that they can be slapped back into place if Iran does not meet its commitments?
In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement before the talks ended, saying that the negotiators were turning a blind eye to Iranian “aggression” as shown by its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“The agreement being formulated in Lausanne sends a message that there is no price for aggression and, on the contrary, that Iran’s aggression is to be rewarded,” he said.
“The moderate and responsible countries in the region, especially Israel and also many other countries, will be the first to be hurt by this agreement. One cannot understand that when forces supported by Iran continue to conquer more ground in Yemen, in Lausanne they are closing their eyes to this aggression.”
The Tuesday deadline was considered crucial for U.S. negotiators, because Obama and Kerry said earlier that if a framework agreement was not reached by then, they would have to assess whether to continue the process. But an interim agreement, under which Iran has limited its nuclear output, does not expire until June 30. Negotiators from France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia had expressed less urgency about getting some sort of understanding outlined by midnight Tuesday.
Karen DeYoung in Washington and William Booth in Jerusalem contributed to this report.