VIENNA – Iran will be allowed to access an additional $2.8 billion of its frozen assets during a four-month period of extended talks with six powers on its nuclear program, but most sanctions against Tehran will remain in place, the United States said.
“Iran will not get any more money during these four months than it did during the last six months, and the vast majority of its frozen oil revenues will remain inaccessible,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement released in Vienna on Saturday. “We will continue to vigorously enforce the sanctions that remain in place.”
Earlier, Iran and the six powers agreed to extend nuclear talks by four months after they failed to reach a July 20 deadline for a long-term deal that would gradually lift the sanctions against Tehran that have crippled its economy in exchange for curbs on the Iranian atomic program.
The talks are aimed at resolving the decade-old dispute over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. But diplomats said they were unable to overcome significant differences on major sticking points.
A senior U.S. official later told reporters that the money would be released in tranches. He added that Washington would make clear to countries around the world that “Iran is not open for business” during the four months of extended talks.
In exchange for the money, Kerry said, Iran has agreed to continue neutralizing its most sensitive uranium stocks — uranium that has been enriched to a level of 20 percent — by converting it to fuel for a research reactor in Tehran that is used to make medical isotopes.
Kerry said that the future of Iran’s enrichment program was one of the most divisive topics.
“There are very real gaps on issues such as enrichment capacity at the Natanz enrichment facility,” he said. “This issue is an absolutely critical component of any potential comprehensive agreement. We have much more work to do in this area, and in others as well.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters earlier this week that Tehran would be willing to delay development of an industrial-scale uranium enrichment program for up to seven years and to keep the 19,000 centrifuges it has installed so far for this purpose.
But Kerry said after several face-to-face meetings with Zarif it was “crystal clear” that for Iran to keep all of its existing centrifuges was out of the question.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Zarif spoke of “significant gaps” in a joint statement they issued in the early hours of Saturday.
Another difficult issue in the talks, diplomats said, is how to address the country’s suspected past atomic bomb research and the duration of any long-term restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. The negotiations began in February in Vienna.
“We will reconvene in the coming weeks in different formats with the clear determination to reach agreement on a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (long-term agreement) at the earliest possible moment,” Ashton and Zarif said.
The extension begins July 21 and runs through Nov. 24.
It has been clear for days that Iran and the six powers would miss the Sunday deadline to reach an accord on curbing Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the gradual lifting of sanctions due to disagreements on a number of key issues.
The talks are taking place because of a preliminary agreement reached in Geneva in November 2013 that gave Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for halting some nuclear activities and also created time and space for the negotiation of a comprehensive deal to end the decade-long dispute.
But it remains uncertain whether four more months of high-stakes talks will yield a final deal, since underlying differences remain large after six rounds of meetings this year.
Western nations fear Iran’s nuclear program may be aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran denies this.
The six powers want Iran to significantly scale back its nuclear enrichment program to make sure it cannot yield nuclear bombs. Iran wants sanctions that have severely damaged its oil-dependent economy to be lifted as soon as possible.
After years of rising tension between Iran and the West and fears of a new Middle East war, last year’s election of a pragmatist, Hassan Rouhani, as Iran’s president led to a thaw in ties that resulted in November’s diplomatic breakthrough.