With a deadline for Iranian nuclear deal fast approaching, US Secretary of State John Kerry embarked Wednesday on a frenzy of high-stakes diplomacy in a last-minute push to secure an agreement — or at least prevent the process from collapsing.
As senior negotiators huddled for a second day in Vienna, Kerry held separate meetings in London. He planned a trip to Paris Wednesday. Kerry was still weighing when he might join the larger effort in the Austrian capital where negotiators are racing against the clock to forge a pact over the next five days to prevent Iran from reaching the capability to produce atomic weapons.
Despite his efforts, though, signs increasingly pointed to Monday's deadline passing without a deal and the negotiations being extended a second time.
In London, Kerry met Wednesday at his hotel with Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi of Oman, a key bridge between Washington and Tehran, a senior US official said. Bin Alawi was in Tehran last weekend and met with Kerry on Tuesday. Their follow-up meeting was unannounced and confirmed only after an Associated Press reporter saw the foreign minister in Kerry's hotel.
Oman is not party to the negotiations among Iran, the US, Britain, China, France, Russia, the European Union and Germany.
But it is unique among the Gulf Arab states for the close ties it maintains with Iran, having hosted high-level nuclear talks earlier this month and served as the site of secret U.S.-Iranian gatherings dating back to 2012. Those earlier discussions laid the groundwork for an interim nuclear agreement reached a year ago, which the so-called P5+1 countries now hope to cement with a comprehensive accord in Vienna.
Details of Kerry's meetings with bin Alawi were not immediately clear and US officials were tight-lipped about any role Oman might play beyond that of an intermediary.
In Washington, President Barack Obama's nominee to be Kerry's deputy at the State Department said he believed it would be difficult to meet the deadline.
"It's not impossible," said Tony Blinken, currently Obama's deputy national security adviser. "It depends entirely on whether Iran is willing to take steps it must take to convince us, to convince our partners that its program would be for entirely peaceful purposes. As we speak, we're not there."
Peter Wittig, Germany's ambassador to the US, wouldn't rule out an extension and said a nuclear deal could lead to better relations between Iran and world powers on regional crises in Syria and Lebanon.
"If these negotiations fail, there won't be any winners," Wittig told reporters in Washington.
In Paris, Kerry will meet Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Those meetings are key because French objections last year delayed the adoption of an interim agreement by several weeks, and Saudi Arabia remains deeply concerned about the potential for its arch-rival Iran to win concessions from the West.
The Obama administration also is trying to satisfy the concerns of Republican and many Democratic lawmakers at home.
Republican senators sent a letter to the White House on Wednesday urging the administration against trying to circumvent Congress in any deal with Iran. "Unless the White House genuinely engages with Congress, we see no way that any agreement consisting of your administration's current proposals to Iran will endure," said the letter, which was signed by all 45 Senate Republicans.
In a twist, many in Congress who previously opposed further extensions of talks with Iran now see that route as a preferable to an agreement that doesn't do enough to cut off possible Iranian pathways toward a nuclear bomb.
Republicans in particular want more time so that they can attempt to pass new sanctions legislation that would pressure Iran into greater concessions. Their plan is to bring up a package of conditional penalties after January, when they take the majority, according to GOP Senate aides who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
Some Democrats are on board with that effort, though Obama has threatened to veto any new sanctions threatening the diplomacy.
Even Israel, which has been among the most hostile to the West's diplomatic overtures toward Tehran, is suggesting it is amenable to an extension. The option would allow time for a better agreement to be negotiated through additional economic sanctions on Iran, a senior Israeli official said.