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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Simon Sturdee and Daniel Rook, AFP

Vienna — Talks between world powers and Iran on a historic nuclear deal entered Sunday what France described as the “final phase,” but Washington warned major issues must still be overcome.

Hopes grew that a breakthrough might finally be in sight after a flurry of diplomatic activity ahead of the latest deadline on Monday for an agreement.

“I hope we are finally entering the final phase of these marathon negotiations. I believe it,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters as he returned to Vienna on the haggle’s 16th day.

The talks seek to nail down a deal curbing Iran’s nuclear activities to make it extremely difficult for Tehran — which denies any such goal — to develop the atomic bomb. In return Iran will be granted staggered relief from painful sanctions, although the six powers insist on the option of reimposing the restrictions if Tehran breaches the deal.

Despite the air of optimism in the Austrian capital, U.S. and Iranian officials dampened speculation that an agreement was imminent.

“We have never speculated about the timing of anything during these negotiations, and we’re certainly not going to start now — especially given the fact that major issues remain to be resolved in these talks,” a senior U.S. State Department official said.

Iranian diplomat Alireza Miryousefi, writing on Twitter, quoted a senior official from Tehran as saying a deal by Sunday night was “logistically impossible” as the agreement being drawn up spanned 100 pages.

Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been embroiled in talks with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna since June 27, was cautiously upbeat.

“I think we’re getting to some real decisions. So I will say, because we have a few tough things to do, I remain hopeful. Hopeful,” Kerry said, calling his latest meeting with Zarif “positive.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini who chairs the P5+1 group — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany — negotiating with Iran said on Twitter that these were the “decisive hours.”

And a diplomatic source said Saturday as a flurry of bilateral and multilateral meetings went deep into the night that “98 percent of the text is finished.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flew to join the talks in Vienna, his ministry said.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, however, left the talks on Sunday but was expected to return the next morning.

‘Time To Decide’

Under the parameters of a framework deal reached in Lausanne in April, Iran is to slash the number of its centrifuges from more than 19,000 to just over 6,000 and sharply cut its stocks of enriched uranium.

Negotiators left the thorniest issues until last, including a mechanism for lifting interlocking EU, U.S. and U.N. sanctions.

A new hurdle was thrown up in recent days, with the Iranian delegation insisting a U.N. arms embargo be lifted once a deal is reached.

The talks have also stumbled on demands to give U.N. nuclear inspectors access to military sites, to probe suspicions Iran sought to develop nuclear weapons in the past.

A final agreement would be a diplomatic victory for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has made the talks a centerpiece of his foreign policy, and for his Iranian opposite Hassan Rouhani, a moderate seeking to end his country’s diplomatic isolation.

Both have faced opposition from hardliners at home, as well as from Iran’s arch-foe Israel, believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed state, although it has never confirmed it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the deal would allow Iran to make “many nuclear bombs and gives it hundreds of billions of dollars for its terrorism and conquest machine.”

Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states are also deeply suspicious of Shiite Iran, accusing it of fomenting unrest in Syria, Yemen, and other flashpoints.

Obama, a Democrat, has faced persistent opposition to his Iran policy from the U.S. Congress, controlled by Republicans, who in a 60-day review period may try to scupper the accord.

Iran has for years faced U.N., EU, and U.S. sanctions that have placed restrictions on the country’s oil and banking sectors, trade, and everyday life for the population of 78 million.

In Tehran, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Saturday that the battle against the “arrogance” of the United States would continue even if there is a deal.

“This is an historic moment and there could be serious repercussions if negotiators fail to seize this opportunity to get a good deal,” Arms Control Association analyst Kelsey Davenport told AFP.

Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shake hands in Vienna, on November 20, 2014, with Baroness Catherine Ashton. (U.S. Embassy Vienna via Flickr)

Trump speaking at Londonderry, NH rally

Screenshot from YouTube

Donald Trump once again baselessly claimed on Sunday that the COVID-19 pandemic was "going to be over" soon, just hours after his chief of staff suggested the administration was unable to get it under control.

"Now we have the best tests, and we are coming around, we're rounding the turn," Trump said at a campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. "We have the vaccines, we have everything. We're rounding the turn. Even without the vaccines, we're rounding the turn, it's going to be over."

Trump has made similar claims on repeated occasions in the past, stating early on in the pandemic that the coronavirus would go away on its own, then with the return of warmer weather.

That has not happened: Over the past several weeks, multiple states have seen a surge in cases of COVID-19, with some places, including Utah, Texas, and Wisconsin, setting up overflow hospital units to accommodate the rapidly growing number of patients.

Hours earlier on Sunday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows appeared to contradict Trump, telling CNN that there was no point in trying to curb the spread of the coronavirus because it was, for all intents and purposes, out of their control.

"We are not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas," he said. "Because it is a contagious virus, just like the flu."

Meadows doubled own on Monday, telling reporters, "We're going to defeat the virus; we're not going to control it."

"We will try to contain it as best we can, but if you look at the full context of what I was talking about, we need to make sure that we have therapeutics and vaccines, we may need to make sure that when people get sick, that, that they have the kind of therapies that the president of the United States had," he added.Public health experts, including those in Trump's own administration, have made it clear that there are two major things that could curb the pandemic's spread: mask wearing and social distancing.

But Trump has repeatedly undermined both, expressing doubt about the efficacy of masks and repeatedly ignoring social distancing and other safety rules — even when doing so violated local and state laws.

Trump, who recently recovered from COVID-19 himself, openly mocked a reporter on Friday for wearing a mask at the White House — which continues to be a hotspot for the virus and which was the location of a superspreader event late last month that led to dozens of cases. "He's got a mask on that's the largest mask I think I've ever seen. So I don't know if you can hear him," Trump said as his maskless staff laughed alongside him.

At the Manchester rally on Sunday, Trump also bragged of "unbelievable" crowd sizes at his mass campaign events. "There are thousands of people there," he claimed, before bashing former Vice President Joe Biden for holding socially distant campaign events that followed COVID safety protocols.

"They had 42 people," he said of a recent Biden campaign event featuring former President Barack Obama. "He drew flies, did you ever hear the expression?"

Last Monday, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) endorsed Biden's approach to the pandemic as better than Trump's, without "any doubt."

"The more we go down the road resisting masks and distance and tracing and the things that the scientists are telling us, I think the more concerned I get about our management of the COVID situation," he told CNN.

In his final debate against Biden last Thursday, Trump was asked what his plan was to end the pandemic. His answer made it clear that, aside from waiting for a vaccine, he does not have one.

"There is a spike, there was a spike in Florida and it's now gone. There was a very big spike in Texas — it's now gone. There was a spike in Arizona, it is now gone. There are spikes and surges in other places — they will soon be gone," he boasted. "We have a vaccine that is ready and it will be announced within weeks and it's going to be delivered. We have Operation Warp Speed, which is the military is going to distribute the vaccine."

Experts have said a safe vaccine will likely not be ready until the end of the year at the earliest, and that most people will not be able to be vaccinated until next year.

Trump also bragged Sunday that he had been "congratulated by the heads of many countries on what we have been able to do," without laying out any other strategy for going forward.

Nationally, new cases set a single-day record this weekend, with roughly 84,000 people testing positive each day. More than 8.5 million Americans have now contracted the virus and about 225,000 have died.

Trump, by contrast, tweeted on Monday that he has "made tremendous progress" with the virus, while suggesting that it should be illegal for the media to report on it before the election.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.