VIENNA — The U.S. told Iran Sunday that it's time to consider extending nuclear talks, in the first formal recognition by Washington that frenzied last-minute diplomacy may not be enough to seal a deal by a rapidly approaching deadline.
A senior U.S. official said that with the Monday evening cutoff date a little more than a day away, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry proposed to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Java Zarf that the two sides start discussing post-deadline talks in their latest meeting since Kerry arrived three days ago to add his diplomatic weight to the talks.
At the same time, two Western diplomats said, negotiations were continuing with Iran on trying to bridge differences on reducing Tehran's ability to make nuclear weapons to levels acceptable to Washington while giving the Islamic republic the relief it seeks from international sanctions over its atomic activities.
All three officials demanded anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the diplomatic twists and turns of talks that have been under a blanket of confidentiality since the sides started negotiating a comprehensive nuclear deal eight months ago.
The U.S. official said a number of options were under discussion.
"An extension is one of those options," the official said. "It should come as no surprise that we will also engage in a discussion of the options with the Iranians at some point as well."
Foreshadowing the developments, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told German television: "If there isn't quite a conclusion, we will have to search for possibilities to ensure that nothing breaks off here and the process can be continued."
But reaching an agreement that allows for more negotiations could be difficult. Beyond assurances that the Iranians aren't just talking for the sake of winning time, the U.S. administration wants to show to congressional skeptics that there is sense to continuing the talks. That means Washington might push the Iranians to accept at least one of their demands on the table.
Should such a plan be agreed upon, talks could resume in early December when Kerry plans to return to Europe for a previously scheduled NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, and an international conference in London.
Outlining some differences between Washington and Tehran in general terms, President Barack Obama said the U.S. goal is "to shut off a whole bunch of different avenues whereby Iran might get a nuclear weapon, and at the same time make sure that the structure of sanctions are rolled back step for step as Iran is doing what it's supposed to do."
"I think Iran would love to see the sanctions end immediately, and then to still have some avenues that might not be completely closed, and we can't do that," he told ABC's "This Week" in comments aired Sunday
As the clock ticked down, other foreign ministers from the six negotiating powers were converging on Vienna in a concerted effort to at least get an acceptable way to extend the talks even if the deal deadline is missed.
The foreign minister of Germany, Russia and France were already in Vienna by late Sunday. Britain's foreign secretary was en route and China's foreign minister was scheduled to arrive Monday.
Kerry, who arrived Thursday, also met with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, whose country is vying for Middle East influence with Iran. Diplomats said Saud flew to Vienna from Paris solely for the briefing, and the two talked in his plane parked on the Vienna Airport tarmac.
Margaret Childs contributed to this report.