U.S. officials appeared to be closer on Wednesday to clinching an agreement with Iran that would stop the country from developing nuclear weapons, signs of progress welcome in a region that continues to know extreme violence as ISIS militants step up their attacks.Jeff Rathke, a spokesperson for the State Department, acknowledged at a press briefing early in the afternoon that bilateral talks had taken place on Wednesday, with more to follow on Thursday in Paris, where Secretary of State John Kerry is due to meet with foreign officials involved in the negotiations.
Rathke confirmed that the formal agreement “itself is not completed” ahead of a tight November 24 deadline and denied that the Obama administration wanted to pursue extensions. He also declined to elaborate on how much progress had been made in negotiations, saying, “We’ll know it’s done if we’ve reached an agreement.”
More than a year in the making, the comprehensive deal is the work of the so-called “P5+1” group, which includes the five countries with permanent seats on the UN Security Council — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- plus Germany.
The agreement builds on several rounds of back-and-forth negotiations that began after the countries agreed to a plan of action in 2013 that could halt Iran’s uranium enrichment program. If officials strike a deal consistent with the original plan, it could mark a dramatic shift in relations with the majority Shi’ite country, a powerhouse in the Muslim world.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, a prominent public policy group, the agreement would hold Iran accountable for dismantling its nuclear weapons program, but allow it to keep half of its existing uranium stock for nonmilitary uses. In exchange, countries in the European Union would promise to lift barriers on crude oil shipments from Iran and — along with the United States and UN councils — agree to halt or even suspend billions of dollars in crippling economic sanctions.
Kerry May Have Tried to Smooth Waters after Obama Speech
That isn’t to say that there haven’t been setbacks.
Tensions remain high among even P5+1 group members, with the United States and other countries continuing to lambast and isolate Russia for what some have called a stealth invasion to unlawfully seize Ukrainian territory earlier this year under pretenses that pro-Russian residents want to secede.President Barack Obama leveled some of those claims against Russia when he
addressed the UN general assembly in September, likening the country under Vladimir Putin’s leadership to a wartime aggressor and alleging that it trampled the Ukrainian people’s rights in pursuit of a land grab.
That may have led to some troubled diplomatic waters as the administration continues working closely with Russia on a deal with Iran. A reporter at the Wednesday briefing quoted Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, as having shared with one publication that Kerry personally told him to “forget about” Obama’s remarks in order to move forward with negotiations for a comprehensive agreement with Iran.
Asked whether the State Department stood behind Kerry’s comments, Rathke dismissed it out of hand, calling it “unfortunate” and an “incorrect characterization” of what should have been private negotiations between U.S. and Russian officials.
“Of course, the secretary supports the president’s statements regarding Russia,” he added. “We will continue to work with Russia on areas where we agree while standing firmly against Russia’s violation of principles and sovereignty of other nations.”
Reporters at the Wednesday briefing asked about the Obama administration’s plans for embattled allied forces in Iraq and now farther west as ISIS militants try to expand their foothold beyond Iraq and the larger Middle East.
Rathke called the militant group’s efforts to keep its hold on power “desperate measures” as airstrikes by the United States and allied forces continue across Iraq and Syria.Reporters drew attention to the region’s Kurdish fighters, who continue to see losses as ISIS militants try to press their advantage in a region with porous borders and weak from years of war. Explosions in Iraq’s Kurdish region
left four dead and 29 injured on Wednesday.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in October, more than 300 Syrian Kurdish forces fell in clashes that also resulted in the deaths of 481 ISIS militants and helped the town hold the line along the border that Syria shares with Turkey.
According to the same source, a spokesperson for Kurdish military forces there credited U.S.-led airstrikes for helping them prevent ISIS from completely capturing the town.
Rathke said the United States would continue to evaluate military equipment for Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, adding that the State Department had “enormous respect for the courage the Kurds have shown in the fight they have already taken to [ISIS].”
But the situation seemed increasingly grave far away from the conflict in Derna, Libya, where local media reported that the jihadi city had raised ISIS flags and declared its affiliation with the militant group.
The State Department spokesperson said administration officials would continue to closely monitor the situation in Derna.
Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov / Source: Reuters