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U.N. Nuclear Chief Is Optimistic About Iranian Cooperation on Review

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, during a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry as part of nuclear negotiations in Vienna on Friday.
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and DAVID E. SANGER
July 4, 2015

VIENNA — The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said on Saturday that, with Iranian cooperation, his agency could complete an assessment on Iran’s suspected past nuclear work by December, potentially removing a major obstacle to a nuclear agreement.

With his statement, Yukiya Amano, the director general of the agency, appeared to be signaling that a preliminary investigation into the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s past nuclear work could happen on an expedited basis, a schedule that could facilitate the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran.

He made the statement a day after returning here from Tehran, where he met with President Hassan Rouhani and other senior Iranian officials.

“With the cooperation from Iran I think we can issue a report by the end of the year on the assessment of the clarification of the issues related to possible military dimensions,” said Mr. Amano, a cautious diplomat who weighs his words carefully. “We have made progress on the way forward.”

Graphic | A Simple Guide to the Nuclear Negotiations With Iran A guide to help you navigate the talks between Western powers and Tehran.

Over the past eight years, the I.A.E.A. has had three different agreements with Iran to resolve evidence that Iranian scientists may have worked on the design of trigger mechanisms used in nuclear weapons, re-entry vehicles that could protect a nuclear warhead, and a variety of related technologies. In 2011 the agency published a list of a dozen questions, but it has barely made a dent in answering them. Iran has contended that the documents the agency is relying on are fabrications, provided by the United States and Israel, and has declined so far to cooperate with the I.A.E.A. inquiry.

It is doubtful that the agency can fully resolve those issues by the end of the year. But American officials have been suggesting that if agency inspectors can get access to Iranian scientists, documents and some sites to resolve suspicions, the sanctions could begin to lift even before the agency reaches final conclusions.

“We have to see that they are getting the access they need,” one senior administration official said in May. “We don’t have to wait for the I.A.E.A. to issue its reports.”

The nuclear talks have moved into high gear with negotiators trying to reach an agreement by Tuesday. If they hit that target date, the agreement could be submitted to the United States Congress by Thursday, limiting the congressional review period to 30 days. If the agreement comes later in the summer, Congress would have twice as long.

Ernest J. Moniz, the United States energy secretary, met with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, on Saturday. The two physicists played a crucial role in negotiating the outlines of the accord two months ago and have been engaged in intensive talks on the limits that would be set on Iran’s nuclear program.

Wendy R. Sherman, a senior State Department official, and a team of American officials have been meeting with their Iranian counterparts on another major obstacle to an accord: the schedule for lifting economic sanctions by presidential order. American officials have said that has to be preceded by actions by Tehran, a concept Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rejected in a speech two weeks ago. But that coordination appears to be what is happening behind closed doors. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Saturday afternoon and again in the evening.

As talks spilled into the weekend, Mr. Zarif took the unusual step of appealing directly to citizens of Western nations in a YouTube video posted Friday night.

“At this 11th hour, despite some differences that remain, we have never been closer to a lasting outcome,” Mr. Zarif said. “But there is no guarantee. Getting to yes requires the courage to compromise, the self-confidence to be flexible.”

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The four-minute video, which opened with piano music, was filmed on the balcony of the Coburg Palace, the Vienna hotel where the negotiations are being held. Speaking in English, Mr. Zarif said his goal was “to put a long overdue end to an unnecessary crisis” and called for “the audacity to break old habits,” a phrase that appeared to allude to the title of President Obama’s second book, “The Audacity of Hope.” Mr. Zarif also alluded to possibly cooperating with the West against the militant group Islamic State if progress was made on the nuclear front.

“Our common threat today is the growing menace of violent extremism,” he said. “The menace we are facing — and I say ‘we’ because no one is spared — is embodied by the hooded men who are ravaging the cradle of civilization. To deal with this challenge, new approaches are badly needed.”

The United States has long charged that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whom Iran has strongly supported, spurred the rise of the Islamic State and other extremist groups by violently cracking down on his political opponents.

“Iran continued to provide arms, financing, training and the facilitation of primarily Iraqi Shia and Afghan fighters to support the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown,” the State Department said in a report issued last month.

The report also asserted that Iran had continued its “terrorist-related activities” by supporting Palestinian militants in Gaza; the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah; and Iraqi Shiite militias that carried out human rights abuses against Iraqi Sunnis.

Foreign ministers from the other world powers involved in the talks are expected to rejoin Mr. Kerry and Mr. Zarif in the negotiations on Sunday.

“We’re really in the endgame of all this,” a senior United States official said. “But it’s also clear that there are still big issues that are not resolved.”