Credit Pool photo by Susan Walsh
GENEVA — With only a month to go before a deadline for a nuclear accord with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry began a major push Saturday to conclude the agreement.
Mr. Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, met here Saturday for six hours of talks, the first high-level negotiating round since the two sides settled on the outline of an agreement on April 2 in Lausanne, Switzerland.
A senior American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the closed meeting, said afterward that the discussions had been “intense at times, but very focused and very comprehensive.” The Obama administration still believes it is possible to complete an accord by the June 30 deadline, and it is determined to try hard to get it done, officials said.
But some experts outside the government have begun to question the wisdom of negotiating against a deadline, especially because some major issues remain unresolved. Rushing an accord, they say, might work to Iran’s advantage by building pressure on the United States and its negotiating partners to make concessions in talks with Iranian officials who have a penchant for hammering out compromises at the last minute.
“It is a tall order for them to finish by the end of June, especially to get the technical annexes done in sufficient detail to avoid implementation problems,” said Robert J. Einhorn, who served on the American delegation to the Iran talks until 2013. “The negotiators should take whatever time they need, even if it means working past June 30.”
Gary Samore, who was the senior National Security Council official on weapons of mass destruction during President Obama’s first term, said American officials should be prepared to negotiate through the summer.
“Tactically, it is better to extend the talks to demonstrate that we aren’t desperate for a deal at any cost,” said Mr. Samore, a member of the group United Against Nuclear Iran.
Mr. Kerry, however, has long spoken of the importance of deadlines, arguing that they are the only way to get officials on both sides to make the tough decisions needed to seal an accord.
“We’ve often seen during these talks that deadlines are action-forcing mechanisms,” said a State Department official who is traveling with Mr. Kerry and spoke on the condition of anonymity under the agency’s protocol for briefing reporters.
The remaining obstacles to an accord include the need to agree on effective verification measures and a schedule for lifting economic sanctions on Iran. The negotiators also need to clarify how quickly Iran could expand its network of centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, and install more sophisticated models in the final years of the accord.
The resolution of such questions will help determine how advanced Iran’s nuclear program may be when the accord expires.
The Obama administration has said that the deal under negotiation would extend to a year, from the current two or three months, the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb. But the provisions to achieve that longer “breakout time” would be eased after the first decade of the agreement.
He argued that the agreement would still be worth it, and other officials say the final breakout time might not be so short, depending on the terms of the agreement. The latitude Iran will have to develop and install new enrichment technology in the last years of the accord will depend on arrangements that have yet to be enumerated.
Other questions concern how to verify that Iran is following the deal and how to address suspicions that it has already conducted secret nuclear weapons research. After the Lausanne talks, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that neither inspections of military sites nor interviews with nuclear scientists would be allowed.
That prompted concerns that Iran might be backtracking from understandings sketched out in the talks. Those worries were only partly eased when Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, said in a lengthy interview that his country had agreed to “managed access” in which inspectors could take samples “from the vicinity of military sites.” On Saturday, however, Mr. Araqchi said that allowing Iran’s scientists to be interviewed was “generally off the table.”
Experts say that wide-ranging inspections are needed to guard against cheating. They also say that the International Atomic Energy Agency needs to interview Iranian scientists to resolve questions about Iran’s suspected work on nuclear weapons designs and tests of weapons components — what the agency calls the “possible military dimensions” of the Iranian program. Iran says its program is only for civilian purposes.
The State Department official said the two sides had made headway on this in Lausanne by agreeing to develop a “list of people and places for access,” but acknowledged that important details had yet to be settled.
“We didn’t agree on the list, but we agreed to undertake a process to develop that list,” the official said.
The nuclear talks involve Iran, the United States and five other world powers: Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
Mr. Kerry’s meeting with Mr. Zarif on Saturday included Helga Schmid, the political director for the European Union. Among the other participants in the talks was Wendy R. Sherman, the chief American negotiator on Iran nuclear issues.
Mr. Araqchi joined Mr. Zarif among the Iranian negotiators. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, was too ill to attend but participated by phone from Tehran.
It is unclear when Mr. Kerry will meet again with the Iranians, but negotiators at Ms. Sherman’s level plan to convene on Thursday, the Iranians announced.
Asked at the start of the session on Saturday if the negotiators expected to meet their deadline, Mr. Zarif said, “We will try.”
France’s ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, said last week that it could be hard to meet the deadline because Iran would engage in diplomatic brinkmanship to try to squeeze some final concessions.
“Likely that Iran will wait for the last days for compromising,” he wrote on Twitter.