LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — The United States and Iran broke off nuclear negotiations ahead of schedule Friday, setting up make-or-break talks next week for a deal providing long-term assurance to the world that the Iranians cannot develop nuclear weapons. The sides were close to an agreement, a top Russian official said.
The session in the Swiss city of Lausanne was interrupted on its sixth day so members of the Iranian delegation could attend the funeral of their president's mother. Those departing included Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the main negotiating partner of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and Hossein Fereydoon, a brother of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Diplomats didn't promise a breakthrough this week, but strove to make as much progress as possible with a March 31 deadline for a framework accord looming.
Top Russian negotiator Sergey Ryabkov told The Associated Press that while some disputes remain, the U.S., Iran and five other world powers negotiating the deal are expected to "finish their main work" before the talks resume next week. He spoke shortly before Kerry's last meeting with Zarif on Friday. This week's discussions had been tentatively extended to go into Saturday.
Ryabkov's comments were consistent with those of other officials who told the AP earlier that the United States and Iran are drafting elements of a deal that commits the Iranians to a 40 percent cut in the number of machines they could use to make an atomic bomb. In return, Iran would get quick relief from some crippling economic sanctions and a partial lift of a U.N. embargo on conventional arms. The sides ultimately want to reach a full agreement by June 30.
But both Washington and Tehran face pressure to iron out the main contours of a deal by this month's end, with U.S. President Barack Obama and Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei having spoken against extending negotiations for the third time. Iran says the program's aims are for energy, medical and research purposes, but much of the world believes it harbors nuclear weapons ambitions.
In Brussels, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the state of negotiations Friday with the EU's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini. All three countries are negotiating with the United States, as are Russia and China.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Kerry would meet with the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany in London Saturday, before returning to Washington.
The U.S. is determined to maintain unity among its partners. But France, which raised last minute objections to an interim agreement reached with Iran in 2013, could threaten a deal again. It is particularly opposed to providing Iran with quick relief from international sanctions and is trying to secure a longer timeframe for restrictions on Iran's nuclear activity.
Diplomats said the talks would resume after March 25. The venue will likely be in Switzerland.
The stakes are high. Washington has yet to say what it will do if talks miss the March deadline. And the Obama administration has warned that a diplomatic failure could lead to an ever tougher dilemma: Whether to launch a military attack on Iran or allow it to reach nuclear weapons capacity.
A more immediate challenge may be intervention from Congress. If American lawmakers pass new economic sanctions on Iran, the Islamic Republic could respond by busting through the interim limits on its nuclear program it agreed to 16 months ago. Thus far it has stuck to that agreement, according to a confidential U.N. nuclear agency report issued Friday and shared with the AP.