US secretary of state John Kerry is flying to Geneva, Switzerland, to join six world powers for talks on Iran’s nuclear programmes, in a last-minute decision that suggests a deal could be imminent.
Earlier Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator signalled progress at the talks on a deal to cap some of his country’s atomic programmes in exchange for limited relief from sanctions stifling its economy.
A senior US State Department official travelling with Mr Kerry in Amman, Jordan, said Mr Kerry would come to Geneva “to help narrow differences in negotiations”.
Even if an agreement is reached, it would only be the start of a long process to reduce Iran’s potential nuclear threat, with no guarantee of ultimate success.
But a limited accord would mark a breakthrough after nearly a decade of mostly inconclusive talks focused on limiting, if not eliminating, Iranian atomic programmes that could be turned from producing energy into making weapons.
Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiato, Abbas Araghchi told Iranian state TV that the six – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – “clearly said that they accept the proposed framework by Iran”.
He later told CNN that he thought negotiators at the table are now “ready to start drafting” an accord that outlines specific steps.
Though Mr Araghchi described the negotiations as “very difficult”, he told Iranian state TV that he expected agreement on details by today, the last scheduled round of the current talks.
The upbeat comments suggested that negotiators in Geneva were moving from broad discussions over a nuclear deal to details meant to limit Tehran’s ability to make atomic weapons. In return, Iran would start getting relief from sanctions that have hit its economy hard.
US officials said Mr Kerry would travel to the Geneva talks after a brief stop in Israel, where he will hold a third meeting with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has spoken out against any limited deal that would allow the Iranians sanctions relief.
In Geneva, he is expected to meet the European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, officials said.
The talks are primarily focused on the size and output of Iran’s enrichment programme, which can create both reactor fuel and weapons-grade material suitable for a nuclear bomb.
Iran insists it is pursuing only nuclear energy, medical treatments and research, but the United States and its allies fear that Iran could turn this material into the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
President Barack Obama, in an interview with NBC yesterday, described any sanctions relief as “modest” but said core sanctions against Iran would remain in place.
“Our job is not to trust the Iranians,” he said. “Our job is to put in place mechanisms where we can verify what they’re doing and not doing when it comes to their nuclear programme.”
International negotiators representing the six powers declined to comment on Mr Araghchi’s statement, but White House spokesman Jay Carney elaborated on what the US calls a “first step” of a strategy meant to ultimately contain Iran’s ability to use its nuclear programme to make weapons.
An initial agreement would “address Iran’s most advanced nuclear activities; increase transparency so Iran will not be able to use the cover of talks to advance its programme; and create time and space as we negotiate a comprehensive agreement”, Mr Carney told reporters in Washington.
The six would consider “limited, targeted and reversible relief that does not affect our core sanctions”, he said, alluding to penalties crippling Tehran’s oil exports.
If Iran reneges, said Mr Carney, “the temporary, modest relief would be terminated, and we would be in a position to ratchet up the pressure even further by adding new sanctions”.
He described any temporary, initial relief of sanctions as likely “more financial rather than technical”. Diplomats have previously said initial sanction roll-backs could free Iranian funds in overseas accounts and allow trade in gold and petrochemicals.
Warily watching from the sidelines, Israel warned against a partial agreement that foresees lifting sanctions now instead of waiting for a rigorous final accord that eliminates any possibility of Iran making nuclear weapons.
At a meeting with US legislators in Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu spoke of “the deal of the century for Iran”. While divulging no details, he said the proposed first step at Geneva “will relieve all the (sanctions) pressure inside Iran”.
The last round of talks three weeks ago reached agreement on a framework of possible discussion points and the two sides kicked off yesterday’s round focused on getting to that first step.
The meeting ended about an hour after it began, followed by bilateral meetings, including one between the USand Iranian delegations. EU spokesman Michael Mann said the talks were “making progress”.
Before the morning round, Mr Zarif met Baroness Ashton, who is convening the meeting. Asked afterwards about the chances of agreement on initial steps this week, Mr Zarif said: “If everyone tries their best, we may have one.”