Iran and six world powers have agreed to extend talks on Tehran's nuclear program after failing to seal a deal before a midnight deadline on November 24.
Diplomats said that under the terms of limited agreements reached after six days of high-level talks in Vienna, a political accord is to be completed by March 1, with final details contained in annexes to be sealed by July 1.
It was the second time the negotiators from the United States, Britain, Russia, China, France, Germany, and Iran have extended the deadline for a deal to end a 12-year-standoff by curbing Tehran's nuclear activities in exchange for relief from economic sanctions that have damaged Iran's economy.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani said the negotiations, which began on November 18, "narrowed" gaps and made positions of Tehran and major powers "closer."
"The world has no other path than to negotiate with the representatives of the Iranian nation. The negotiation path will result in a final agreement [sooner or later]," he said on state television.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said “real and substantial progress” was made in the talks, but that there were still "some significant points of disagreement."
"These talks are not going to get easier just because we extend them. They're tough. They've been tough. And they're going to stay tough," Kerry told reporters.
Kerry said there would be no additional sanctions relief.
He also called on the U.S. Congress to support the extension of talks.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said it "was not possible to meet the deadline" due to wide gaps on divisive issues including levels of uranium enrichment and the number of centrifuges Iran would be allowed to operate.
Hammond said that expert level talks will resume in December, at an as yet undetermined venue, and that Iran will be allowed to continue accessing about $700 million per month in frozen assets.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sounded upbeat, saying "we now know for sure" that the talks can produce a deal and that the negotiating nations "are resolved to continue working vigorously and without any delays."
"There is an agreement to continue talks. Within three to four months we seriously expect to produce a document that will contain all the key principles, the realization of which will be a matter of technical consultations and deliberations," Lavrov said.
Differences In The Details
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said only differences about "technical details" remained.
"All the people involved here feel that there really is a chance to find out a way to each other and we are going to take that chance," Steinmeier said about the decision to extend.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose country has not ruled out bombing Iran's nuclear facilities, told the BBC that "no deal is better than a bad deal."
Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the nonproliferation and disarmament program at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL that “the chances remain slim” of reaching a deal in the next seven months.
“Maybe the people of Iran will make it all the more clear that they're tired of being isolated and sanctioned,” he said. “Maybe people in the United States will feel it's time to strike a deal with Iran that would enable Iran to become more of a player for the positive in various developments effecting the region."
According to Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department policy adviser and Iran expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, “it's hard to understand what more time will really resolve, and it is possible that the difference may simply be irreconcilable."
After sealing an interim agreement a year ago, Iran and the six powers -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany -- had initially set a July deadline for a comprehensive deal, but extended it to November as wrangling persisted.
Middle East Tensions
An agreement ending the standoff could remove one major source of tension in the Middle East and decrease Iran's isolation after decades of hostility with the West since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in the nation of 76 million.
But traditional Iranian foes Israel and Saudi Arabia are wary of any deal that fails to curtail Tehran's nuclear ambitions, while hawkish U.S. lawmakers have threatened to push for new sanctions on Iran -- something Russia adamantly opposes -- if there is no concrete progress in the talks.
Amid longstanding Western concerns that Iran has used talks to buy time to continue uranium enrichment, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration will be under pressure to show skeptics at home and abroad that continuing the negotiations is not a mistake.
Three influential U.S. Republican senators said on November 24 that the extension of nuclear negotiations with Iran should be coupled with “increased sanctions and a requirement that any final deal between Iran and the United States be sent to Congress for approval."
John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte warned in a statement that a "bad deal" with Tehran would start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
In a separate statement, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a Republican, said: “One thing that could change Tehran’s resistance to agreeing to a meaningful and effective agreement to keep it from developing a nuclear weapon is more economic pressure,” he added.
In addition to disagreement over the size and scope of the uranium enrichment program Iran would be allowed to carry out under a final agreement, Tehran and Western powers have also disagreed over how fast the sanctions would be lifted.
Depending on the level of enrichment, uranium can be used as fuel for nuclear power plants or for nuclear weapons.
Iran says its nuclear program has exclusively peaceful aims including power generation, but it has failed to fully address UN nuclear agency concerns about suspected atomic bomb research.
Iran has been hit with UN sanctions for violating its commitments as well as additional punitive measures imposed by the United States and European Union, which have harmed its oil-dependent economy.
Before the extension was announced, Iranian diplomats had said they could try to turn to Russia and China -- which have far better relations with Tehran than the Western countries do -- for economic and diplomatic support if the talks broke down.
Reporting by agencies and RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari in Washington.