“There has been no breakthrough today,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague after meetings with Kerry and the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Iran.
The trip gave Kerry a chance to ease an espionage dispute with Germany. After meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, both stressed the importance of their cooperation in solving global crises, yet offered little indication they have fully mended ties.
Separately, Kerry spoke by telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the escalating Mideast violence. Like the others, he also met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
“We’re working, we’re working, we just got here,” said Kerry, chiding reporters asking about progress as Sunday’s meetings wound down.
But the dispute over Iran’s enrichment program appeared to be defying the Western foreign ministers’ combined diplomatic muscle.
Tehran says it needs to expand enrichment to make reactor fuel but the U.S. fears Tehran could steer the activity toward manufacturing the core of nuclear missiles. The U.S. wants deep enrichment cuts; Iran wants to greatly expand enrichment.
“There is a huge gap” over enrichment, said Hague, in comments echoed by the other foreign ministers.
Steinmeier and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius left Sunday, a few hours after they arrived.
Kerry und Hague stayed on for another day of diplomacy. Still, the dispute and other differences strongly indicated that six world powers and Tehran will need to continue negotiations until July 20 and could decide to extend their talks past that informal deadline for a deal.
Such an agreement would buy time to negotiate a pact limiting the scope of such programs in exchange for a full end to nuclear-related sanctions against Tehran.
“Obviously we have some very significant gaps still, so we need to see if we can make some progress,” Kerry told reporters before a meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is convening the talks.
“It is vital to make certain that Iran is not going to develop nuclear weapons, that their program is peaceful. That’s what we are here trying to achieve.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said “positions are still far apart,” and the ministers had come to “try to narrow differences.”
Steinmeier said he and other Western foreign ministers had made clear in meetings with Iranian officials that “the ball is Iran’s court.”
“It is now time for Iran to decide whether they want cooperation with the world community or stay in isolation,” he told reporters.
The show of Western unity notwithstanding, Kerry’s presence was most important. With the most significant disputes between Washington and Tehran, his visit gave him a chance to discuss them directly with Zarif.
Lower-ranking officials represented both Russia and China, possibly reflecting their view even before Sunday that talks past July 20 are unavoidable.
But Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi suggested any extension would be relatively short, saying “there is not much willingness” by either side to go a full six months. He, too, earlier spoke of “huge and deep differences.”
Kerry arrived in Vienna after a diplomatic bounce in Afghanistan, where he persuaded rival presidential candidates to agree to a full audit of their recent runoff election. They also agreed to a power-sharing arrangement.
But the nuclear dispute could prove harder to solve.
Iranian hardliners oppose almost any concession by moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s government. In the U.S., Republicans and Democrats have threatened to scuttle any emerging agreement because it would allow Iran to maintain some enrichment capacity.
Outside the negotiation, regional rivals of Iran, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, are extremely skeptical of any arrangement they feel would allow the Islamic republic to escape international pressure while moving closer to the nuclear club.
An interim deal in January effectively froze Iran’s program, with world powers providing sanctions relief to Tehran of about $7 billion. The two sides also agreed to a six-month extension past July 20 for negotiations to reach a comprehensive deal if necessary.
Kerry also spoke Sunday with the three European foreign ministers about worsening violence in the Middle East, with each likely to push harder than the American for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
Fabius said a cease-fire “is the absolute priority.”
Kerry did not directly address German-U.S tensions caused by revelations about widespread American spying in Germany. “We are great friends,” he told reporters, extolling the “enormous” importance of cooperation on the world stage between Washington and Berlin.
Steinmeier was more direct. Calling good bilateral relations “indispensable,” he acknowledged recent “difficulties” and urged that relations “revive on the basis of trust and mutual respect.”