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Iran Revives Embargo Debate as Nuclear Talks Near End

Mohammad Javad Zarif, center, the foreign minister of Iran, sat next to Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief as they meet with other foreign ministers in Vienna on Tuesday.
By DAVID E. SANGER and THOMAS ERDBRINK
July 6, 2015

VIENNA — With foreign ministers from around the world arriving here in hopes that the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are entering their final hours, a senior Iranian official said on Monday that Tehran was demanding that all United Nations sanctions against his country — including the ban on the import or export of conventional arms — be lifted as part of any deal.

The issue is not a new one; it has been bubbling just beneath the surface as larger arguments over the timing of sanctions relief and the kind of research and development Iran will be able to conduct have dominated the negotiations. But as the haggling has come down to the final issues, most requiring political decisions instead of technical ones, the arms embargo issue has begun to take on larger meaning.

American officials and their European partners in the talks — France, Germany and Britain — have opposed any lifting of the embargoes, arguing that it will only pour fuel on the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, as well as Yemen and Lebanon, as Iran accelerates its arming of Shiite militias.

Russia and China, both permanent members of the United Nations Security Council who profit from arms sales to Iran, have been quietly pressing for a lifting of the ban, American officials say.

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“I think the Iranians see an opportunity here to break the solidarity of their negotiating opponents,” said one European negotiator who asked not to be named because the talks were continuing. “They are very good at this.”

Secretary of State John Kerry and a team of negotiators have been pushing for an agreement to be concluded by Tuesday, or at the latest Wednesday, so that they can convey a final accord to Congress by July 9. If an agreement is reached later in the summer, the congressional review period would double, from 30 days to 60, because of the long summer recess on Capitol Hill.

The Obama administration wants to limit the period of congressional review, with all the opportunities that creates for political debate about any accord. The Iranians, understanding the pressure of the calendar, have been using that deadline to press for a fast resolution, hoping they will gain greater concessions.

“We don’t see a definitive deadline for our work here,” the Iranian official said in briefing reporters, on the condition of anonymity to discuss continuing negotiations. “If we pass July 9, this may not be the end of the world.” Paraphrasing Mr. Kerry’s public statement on Sunday, he said, “We need to have a good agreement,” even if it takes more time.

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The arms embargoes create a particularly complex issue for the United States and its partners, for while they were passed as part of sanctions against the nuclear program, they had a larger purpose. The embargoes have come in three stages, two passed by the Security Council in 2006 and 2007, and a last one in 2010.

“There were many problems with Iran when we constructed these sanctions,” R. Nicholas Burns, the former under secretary of state for political affairs, who pressed the embargoes through the Security Council during the Bush administration, said in a telephone interview. “There was the nuclear activity, of course, but we were also worried about Iran’s activity, arming Shia militias in Iraq. And with Iran moving aggressively contesting the power of our Sunni partners, that is a bigger problem today.”

Mr. Burns, now a professor at Harvard, is a strong supporter of a diplomatic deal with Iran on the nuclear program. That said, he added of the arms embargoes, “I don’t think it’s in our interest to lift it all.”

Whether the embargoes are lifted, partly or in their entirety, may soon become evident. As part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the prospective nuclear accord is formally named, the text of a new Security Council resolution is being drafted. The senior Iranian official said the resolution must reflect a shift in “the treatment of Iran by the Security Council,” which he said “has been terrible.”

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As the negotiations have continued here, Iranian state television, the main tool for disseminating views of the establishment, suddenly changed its tune on Monday on the nuclear negotiations. News channel 6, which is broadcast even into the farthest corners of Iran, is a known bastion for hard-liners who are generally very skeptical of any nuclear deal with the United States.

On Monday, however, news anchors were all smiles as they explained that it was the Americans who had caved in on several crucial issues.

“The fact is, Obama needs this deal much more than we do,” one anchor said. Showing an image of President Obama biting his lip and looking worried, she added: “The American president needs a victory, and only a deal with Iran can give him that. They have retreated on several issues and compromised on their own red lines.”

A clip was repeated throughout the day on the same channel showing Iranian leaders saying that the only deal possible is a good deal, and the channel cut quickly to Iranians on the street finishing the leaders’ sentences.. “We are all together,” said one of the slogans in the clip, hinting that those potentially critical of a deal need to be silent.

David E. Sanger reported from Vienna and Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran.