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Nuclear negotiations enter critical round as deadline nears

LAUSANNE, Switzerland – Nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran entered a critical phase on Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meeting his Iranian counterpart less than a week away from a deadline to secure the outline of a deal.

With the clock ticking, Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and their teams huddled Thursday in the Swiss resort town of Lausanne on Lake Geneva trying to overcome still significant gaps after nearly two years of negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany.

The top diplomats from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia are expected to join the talks if the U.S. and Iran are close to an agreement.

U.S. officials say the March 31 deadline is achievable but remains uncertain. En route to Switzerland with Kerry on Wednesday, one official said the American side can see a path to get to an agreement by the end of March as the last round of talks produced more progress than many previous rounds.

The Iranian side was more upbeat. Ali Akbar Salehi, Tehran’s top nuclear official, told Iran’s IRNA news agency that the talks have already reached a “common understanding” on technical issues.

Salehi, who also is at the talks, added he was optimistic that a comprehensive deal also was within reach.

The pressure is high. The seven nations have set themselves a March 31 deadline for the outline of a final accord they hope to seal by the end of June.

Both President Barack Obama and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have spoken against what would be a third extension of the talks.

And, looming over this round of talks is the crisis in Yemen, where U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia, have launched airstrikes against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels that toppled the government.