By the time Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart checked into a luxury hotel near the famous beaches of Oman earlier this month, a long-sought deal that has eluded the last two American presidents to roll back Tehran’s nuclear program seemed to be slipping out of reach.
With a deadline approaching, Mr. Kerry thought the opportunity could be lost unless the Iranians finally offered a breakthrough compromise. But Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, came with little new. Frustrated, Mr. Kerry said there was no way the United States would accept a deal that did not curb Iran’s ability to produce enough fuel for a bomb within a year.
The conversation grew heated. The two men, patricians in their own cultures and unaccustomed to shouting, found themselves in the kind of confrontation they had avoided during multiple negotiating sessions over the past year. “This was the first time there were raised voices and some unpleasant exchanges,” said an American official, who like others requested anonymity to describe secret diplomacy.
On Monday, as the deadline finally arrived, Mr. Kerry left another negotiating table in Vienna, having failed to bridge the divide. The last-minute offers he expected never arrived. And yet the two diplomats agreed that they may yet agree, and so they settled for a seven-month extension of the deadline in hopes that a new approach might enable them to find the middle ground that has escaped them.
If anything, the last few weeks underscored a larger conclusion about the negotiations: If the deal had been left to Mr. Kerry and Mr. Zarif, and to their respective teams, it probably would have happened. The two men have developed a strong working relationship, and the flare-up in Oman a couple weeks ago underscored how much each wanted to get to a deal but could not.