VIENNA — Joint efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and three other Western foreign ministers failed Sunday to advance faltering nuclear talks with Iran, with the target date for a deal only a week away.
"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.