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Iran Nuclear Negotiators Miss Deadline, Ask For More Time

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Negotiators trying to limit Iran's nuclear program say they need more time for a long-term deal. But they do have a deal to extend the temporary agreement that limits Iran's nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, officials say real progress has been made in Vienna. But it's not clear that will appease critics of the talks.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Before these negotiations began, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, said the Islamic Republic was prepared to show heroic flexibility in order to resolve the nuclear impasse. But apparently, that wasn't enough to close the remaining gaps by today's deadline. Without going into details, Secretary of State John Kerry says real and substantial progress was made here. He says the world is safer because Iran is living up to the interim agreement that's now being extended by another seven months, to the end of June. Kerry also says these extensions can't be unlimited, and they may not get to a deal.

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SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: But given how far we have come over the past year, and particularly in the last few days, this is not certainly the time to get up and walk away.

KENYON: Kerry says he won't go into specifics in order to preserve the space for future negotiations.

KERRY: But I can tell you that progress was indeed made on some of the most vexing challenges that we face. And we now see the path toward potentially resolving some issues that have been intractable.

KENYON: A major hurdle remains Iran's ability to enrich uranium, which can be used to fuel a power reactor or, in a much higher purity, a weapon. For Iran, the paramount concern is lifting the sanctions that are depressing its economy. The talks are being followed very closely in Iran. In televised remarks today, President Hassan Rouhani says this two-part extension will lead to an agreement that will bring Iran out of the gray and into the daylight.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: Although there's still a long way ahead of us, says Rouhani, I can say there have been steps forward. He says the two sides are closer in their logic now, adding that sanctions on Iran are cruel and should be removed step by step. Kerry's efforts today to remind the world of the very real benefits of the current, interim nuclear accord with Iran are unlikely to satisfy critics at home. They fear that the administration will accept a deal that leaves Iran in position to covertly pursue a nuclear weapon. Analyst Ali Vaez with the International Crisis Group says the toughest criticism of this extension will likely come from Capitol Hill.

ALI VAEZ: I think the Iranians are unlikely to be the first to walk away from the table because their plan B, an important part of their plan B, is to shift the blame. And with a hardline, Republican-dominated Senate, this actually becomes much easier. So it is in their interest to wait for Congress to pull the plug first.

KENYON: The sides have set themselves an intermediate deadline of March 1 to produce a basic understanding of what the final agreement will contain. But some here are saying serious progress needs to be made in the coming weeks, before the Republican-led Congress returns for business early in the new year. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Vienna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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