A “substantive” round of talks between Iran and world powers opened the possibility that chief diplomats may unexpectedly return to Geneva to sign an interim nuclear deal.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton for about four hours in the Swiss city, according to an EU statement. Ashton is negotiating on behalf of six world powers and will meet her Iranian counterpart again later today.
Zarif’s deputy, Abbas Araghchi, told reporters the meeting with Ashton was “positive” and there were “whispers that foreign ministers are making plans” to travel to Geneva. The accord’s language must be agreed so that “foreign ministers won’t be surprised,” he said. Iran’s Mehr news agency quoted Araghchi as saying a deal tonight is unlikely.
Envoys are trying to strike a first-step accord that would give negotiators a six-month window in which to win a broader agreement over Iran’s nuclear work. Israel and the U.S. have said they don’t rule out a military strike on Iran, which controls the world’s No. 4 proven oil reserves, to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The Persian Gulf nation of 80 million people denies it’s seeking a nuclear bomb and wants trade sanctions lifted.
It was a “very substantial and detailed start of negotiations,” EU spokesman Michael Mann said in a statement. Ashton and Zarif are “getting down to detailed work.”
Six Powers United
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who drew rebukes from negotiators at the previous round of talks after he raised last-minute objections, today told France24 radio that there are no differences between France and its allies this time.
“For the moment, the Iranians don’t think they need to accept the position of the six,” Fabius said. “I hope they will accept. The text is supported by all six.” Iran is negotiating with six nations in Geneva: China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.
The accord under consideration would give Iran limited sanctions relief from trade in gold, autos, petrochemicals and civilian aircraft parts in exchange for a verified halt to some elements of its nuclear activities, according to diplomats.
Foreign ministers from the U.K. and Germany said they were optimistic that a deal may be reached this week. Differences “are narrow and I believe they can be bridged with political will and commitment,” the U.K.’s William Hague said yesterday. U.S. diplomats said disagreements persist and it’s not certain they can agree to a pact that soon.
During the last round of talks in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, along with their French, German and British counterparts, interrupted their schedules to join the meeting.
Today’s session between Ashton and Zarif was described by the Iranian delegation as a decisive point in negotiations.
“All will depend on the Ashton talks with Zarif,” said Araghchi. The six world powers Iran is negotiating with need a common stance at this “critical juncture,” he said.
The Geneva talks resumed yesterday following a 10-day break. The last round of negotiations failed to seal an accord and diplomats returned to their capitals to consult leaders. Lawmakers in both the U.S. and Iran have criticized the proposed deal, urging a tougher stand and fewer concessions.
In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that, while he supports the negotiations in Geneva, the Senate will be prepared to push for tougher sanctions when lawmakers return in December from a Thanksgiving holiday break. The Obama administration has been pushing lawmakers to hold off action to tighten sanctions to give diplomacy a chance to succeed.
“I will support a bill that would broaden the scope of our current petroleum sanctions, place limitations on trade with strategic sectors of the Iranian economy that support its nuclear ambitions, as well as pursue those who divert goods to Iran,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said on the Senate floor today. “While I support the administration’s diplomatic efforts, I believe we need to leave our legislative options open to act on a new, bipartisan sanctions bill in December.”
A U.S. official involved in the talks dismissed concerns expressed by Israeli leaders and some American lawmakers that the sanctions regime weakening Iran’s economy will collapse if any trade bans are lifted now as part of an interim deal.
United Nations monitors verified last week that Iran had halted expansion of its most sensitive nuclear work on a planned heavy-water reactor and new-generation centrifuges for uranium enrichment after Hassan Rouhani became president in August.
Iran’s declared nuclear facilities are monitored by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that materials aren’t diverted to weapons use.
A deal in Geneva “would enable us to test the prospects of a peaceful resolution, which is what we’ve sought through the application of very tough sanctions,” National Security Advisor Susan Rice said yesterday in Washington. “Without this interim agreement, there will be no brake on Iran continuing full steam ahead with its nuclear program while it talks and perhaps drags out talks.”