EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini says nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers will continue for “several days,” officially confirming that the negotiations will continue beyond a deadline that already has been extended twice.
Speaking in Vienna, where diplomats from the P5+1 have been meeting with Iranian negotiators in a bid to reach a final nuclear agreement before midnight on July 7, Mogherini said the continuation “for the next couple of days” of the negotiations “does not mean we are extending our deadline" for a third time.
However, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the terms of a 2013 interim nuclear deal with Iran have been extended until July 10 –- suggesting that is the new effective deadline for reaching a final agreement.
Harf said “substantial progress” had been made in Vienna in recent days.
She said that “we’re frankly more concerned about the quality of the deal than we are about the clock.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the parties "have never been closer to reaching a final agreement than we are now" but significant differences remain.
"That's an indication that these talks, at least for now, are worth continuing," he added.
Representatives of Iran and the P5+1 are not expected to stop their work in Vienna in the days ahead despite the expected departure on July 7 of some ministers.
Mogherini said that although some ministers from the P5+1 group would leave Vienna on July 7, they would be ready to return.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on July 7 that eight issues remain to be “honed” in order to reach a final agreement, adding that an ongoing United Nations arms embargo against Iran is a “major problem.”
Russia and China, unlike the Western powers, have expressed support for lifting that embargo, which was imposed in 2007 as part of a series of penalties over Iran's nuclear program.
Tehran has rejected any linkage between the nuclear issue and its conventional weapons programs, and it wants no mention of the arms embargo in any nuclear deal.
WATCH: Mogherini Announces Iran Talks To Go Past Deadline
In announcing a framework agreement in April, the United States said "important restrictions on conventional arms and ballistic missiles" would be incorporated in any new UN guidelines for Iran. Such restrictions could be key to maintaining support for the accord in Congress.
The White House recently insisted that any final deal must "be in line with the framework agreement."
The United States and other Western countries want to maintain restrictions on Iran's access to conventional arms because they regard Iran as a major instigator of militant activity and war-making in the Middle East, from Yemen to Lebanon.
It emerged late on July 6 that one of the issues holding up a deal was a dispute about UN sanctions on Iran’s ballistic-missile program.
Though ballistic missiles have not been addressed previously in the negotiations, and were not included in the framework agreement, "the Iranians want the ballistic missile sanctions lifted," one Western official said. "There's no appetite for that on our part."
But an Iranian negotiator said "Iran is insisting on its rights and says all the sanctions, including on the ballistic missiles, should be lifted when the UN sanctions are lifted."
He acknowledged that is a difficult pill for Western negotiators to swallow.
"The Western side insists that not only should [Iran's ballistic-missile program] remain under sanctions, but that Iran should suspend its program as well," the official said.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on July 7 told reporters that there were three main sticking points: “limitations on nuclear research and development, sanctions and their reestablishment, and the possible military dimensions" of past Iranian nuclear work.
The nuclear accord under development for the past two years has been aimed at curbing Tehran's most sensitive nuclear work for a decade or more, in exchange for relief from sanctions that have slashed Iran's oil exports and crippled its economy.
"There will not be an agreement at any price," a German diplomat said. "Failure is not ruled out."
At stake is the deal's credibility in a world full of critics. Israel and the nuclear deal's many opponents in the U.S. Congress have warned that any agreement to lift sanctions will infuse Iran's economy with billions of dollars that could be used to fuel its many conventional military adventures in the region.
"It will give them a jackpot of hundreds of billions of dollars with which to continue to fund their aggression and terror - aggression in the region, terror throughout the world," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently.
Representative Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, echoed those concerns and raised alarms about Iran's new demands.
“With tens of billions of sanctions-relief cash likely coming, Iran now wants free rein to arm Hezbollah terrorists, assist [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad in Syria, and aid Huthi rebels in Yemen,” Royce said.
Whether the sticky new issues can be resolved in time remains to be seen. The clock is ticking on the negotiations.
U.S. President Barack Obama must submit the deal to Congress by July 9 if he hopes to limit Congress' review period to 30 days.
If the deal is submitted later than July 9, the Republican-led Congress would have 60 days to review it, raising the odds that the deal will unravel.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, Interfax, TASS, and The Wall Street Journal