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Mistrust Could Hamper Progress in Nuclear Deal With Iran

Image: Foreign ministers of the six powers negotiate with Tehran on its nuclear program

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, at talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program in Vienna, Sunday, July 13, 2014. Jim Bourg / Pool via AP

VIENNA — Iran and world powers from the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany are here for the last leg of their negotiations over Iran’s disputed nuclear program as the July 20th deadline to reach a deal draws closer.

With the exception of the Russian and Chinese, all the other foreign ministers arrived on Sunday to join the talks. According to a senior State Department official, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is not here to seal the deal but to gauge "Iran's willingness to make the critical choices it will need to make if we have a chance of getting a comprehensive agreement."

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Kerry will then make recommendations to President Barack Obama about next steps in the negotiation, the official said.

"It is certainly late in the day in these negotiations, but it’s not too late for Iran to take the steps that are necessary to give the international community confidence,” a U.S. official told NBC News.

After speaking with Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague on Sunday, Kerry called the discussions during the approaching deadline a "key time."

"It is vital to make certain that Iran is not going to develop a nuclear weapon, that their program is peaceful," Kerry said in statement released by the State Department.

"It is very important for Iran to be more realistic about what is necessary to reach agreement on these issues," Hague said.

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Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, speaking to members of the Iranian media, said that he was "not pessimistic but also not very optimistic'' about the chances for an agreement with the sextet ahead of the self-imposed deadline.

"No proposal has been accepted yet. We have not reached any agreement over the enrichment (program of Iran) and its capacity," Araqchi said.

He added that if the talks collapsed, Iran would resume higher-level enrichment that it suspended on Jan. 20.

“All you had to do is listen this week to the public comments coming from some in Iran’s leadership to see that we are still very far apart on some issues and obviously, on enrichment capacity." said one senior State Department official.

"The numbers we've seen them putting out publicly go far beyond their current program, and we've been clear that in order to get an agreement, that their current program would have to be significantly reduced," the official added.

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The official said the talks with Iran was not a negotiation between equal parties, but rather an assessment by the international community about "whether Iran can come in line with its numerous nonproliferation obligations, to which it has been in violation for years."

Another senior State Department official said that it's not realistic for Iran to expect all sanctions will be lifted in the course of the nuclear agreement. "There are, as my colleague said, terrorism and human rights-related sanctions that are quite specifically targeted at other behavior of Iran," the official said.

"It is very important for Iran to be more realistic about what is necessary to reach agreement on these issues."

The supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has said that if it not by way of the nuclear issue, America will find another reason to impose sanctions and cause hardship for Iran — whether it be human rights or terrorism related charges.

These comments, highlighting the deep-seated mistrust between these two countries that makes a resolution so much more difficult, could possibly irritate the Iranian leadership.

But the U.S. official said, "we believe that we can find a way forward on that that works for everybody.”

— with Elisha Fieldstadt in New York City