Vienna: A final round of talks on Iran`s nuclear programme before a looming deadline hung in the balance on Thursday as Britain expressed pessimism a deal could be done in time and foreign ministers stayed away.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond indicated that the most to be hoped for was enough progress to justify putting yet more time on the clock beyond Monday`s cut-off point.
"I am not optimistic that we can get everything done by Monday," Hammond said in Latvia on Wednesday.
"But I think if we make some significant movement, we may be able to find a way of extending the deadline to allow us to get to the final deal, if we are making good progress in the right direction."
A US State Department spokesman however insisted that negotiators were "still focused" on getting a deal done in time -- something that many experts doubt, particularly as an earlier July 20 deadline was missed.
Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany have been negotiating since February to turn an interim accord with Iran reached a year ago into a lasting agreement before November 24.
Such a deal, after 12 years of rising tensions, is aimed at easing fears that Tehran will develop nuclear weapons under the guise of its civilian activities -- an ambition it denies.Some areas appear provisionally settled, such as the future of the Arak nuclear reactor and tighter UN inspections to better detect any attempt to build a bomb.
But two key issues remain: uranium enrichment -- rendering uranium suitable for peaceful uses but also, at high purities, for a weapon -- and the pace at which sanctions on Iran would be lifted under a deal.
Iran wants to massively ramp up the number of enrichment centrifuges -- in order, it says, to make fuel for a fleet of future reactors -- while the West wants them dramatically reduced, reportedly by half.
The six powers say Iran has no such need in the foreseeable future. Russia is contracted until 2021 to fuel Iran`s only power reactor at Bushehr and last week signed a deal to build -- and fuel -- several others.
In exchange for any reduction in its activities, Iran wants sanctions lifted. Bur the powers want to stagger any suspension to be sure that Iran won`t renege on its commitments. US Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers from the six powers were expected to fly into Vienna later in the week.
But Kerry was not expected in the Austrian capital until Thursday afternoon at the earliest following a trip to Paris to meet the French and Saudi foreign ministers.
And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country is a crucial player in the talks, will only attend if there is sufficient progress, Moscow`s lead negotiator Sergei Ryabkov said.
"Right now a lot depends on Kerry`s visit. Reaching a deal depends on the willingness and ability of the United States to lift sanctions" on Iran, RIA Novosti quoted a Russian source as saying.
Upping the ante, Iran`s President Hassan Rouhani said that a deal was possible but only if the six powers did not ask for too much.
"If the other side shows the political will to reach an accord and doesn`t make excessive demands, a deal could be done," he said on his website.
But Kerry put the onus on Iran.
"It is imperative that Iran works with us with all possible effort to prove to the world that the programme is peaceful," Kerry said in London on Tuesday.
"A deal is still possible by November 24," Arms Control Association analyst Kelsey Davenport told a news agency.
"Both sides are committed to reaching a good agreement and there is enough time on the diplomatic clock to get there. The remaining obstacles can be overcome if both sides are willing to show some flexibility."