Nov. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Top diplomats from the U.S., U.K. and France arrived in Geneva in an attempt to secure a first-step accord ending the decade-long standoff with Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, this morning, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague will also attend today’s talks.
Kerry traveled to the Swiss city “in light of progress being made” and to join his counterparts “should agreement be reached,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said yesterday in a Twitter Inc. posting. In an earlier statement, he said only that Kerry was going to Geneva “with the goal of continuing to help narrow the differences and move closer to an agreement.”
The show of diplomatic power doesn’t necessarily mean an agreement has been clinched by negotiators, who have been in Geneva haggling over language and details. Kerry and the other foreign ministers assembled there on short notice two weeks ago, only to fall short of reaching an agreement on Iran.
Negotiators are seeking an initial accord that would freeze some of Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief. The offer as discussed earlier would ease curbs on trade in gold, petrochemicals, cars and aircraft parts and allow access to some frozen assets. That would permit six months to seek a comprehensive deal intended to reassure other countries that Iran’s nuclear work is solely for peaceful purposes.
Among differences being tackled in the current round is the extent to which a right for Iran to enrich uranium is recognized. The United Nations Security Council has ordered such work to be stopped. A Western diplomat who spoke on condition of not being identified said yesterday that the U.S. has taken a tough position over Iran’s heavy-water reactor, which is under construction, and that there was no agreement on how to word a reference to enrichment.
Talks broke after midnight in Geneva. It’s not clear how long they may continue. Iranian diplomats had said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is scheduled to arrive back in Tehran today for a regional economic conference.
Adding to pressure for a deal this weekend is concern that opponents of the plan in the U.S., Israel and Iran will seek to undermine an accord if one isn’t reached now. The current round of talks is the third in six weeks.
“They understand that if no agreement is reached this time, it will be hard to maintain momentum,” Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said in an interview in Geneva. “It will be difficult recreating the favorable circumstances that exist for an accord if they cannot agree by the end of the year.”
Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who’s representing six world powers at the talks, met three times yesterday in their third day of consultations. The countries negotiating with Iran are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia and China -- plus Germany.
“We are negotiating our differences and we have made considerable progress,” Zarif said in a statement. The current round of negotiations has been “positive” and may be extended, Majid Takh-Ravanchi, another Iranian envoy, said in an interview.
Brent crude gained for a third day yesterday as the outcome in Geneva remained in doubt. Crude for January settlement added 0.9 percent to $111.05 a barrel.
Israel and the U.S. have said they don’t rule out a military strike on Iran to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The Persian Gulf nation of 80 million people, which has the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves, says it’s not seeking a nuclear bomb and wants trade sanctions lifted.
One sticking point is how to define the parameters for Iran’s uranium enrichment, the process that yields fissile material that can be used to generate nuclear power or weapons.
Two Western diplomats from different countries said the issue could be addressed without explicitly granting Iran enrichment rights.
Zarif offered a compromise last week by saying there’s no necessity for formal recognition because the right is self-evident in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Article 4 says countries have an “inalienable right” to nuclear technology. The Obama administration says the treaty gives no explicit right to enrichment.
“Language in the accord doesn’t need to say whether the powers are condoning enrichment or not because it’s only a first step,” said Vaez.
Failure to strike an accord would increase the prospects that U.S. legislators will seek to impose additional sanctions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said in Washington on Nov. 21 that, while he supports the negotiations in Geneva, the Senate will be prepared to push for “a bill that would broaden the scope” of sanctions when lawmakers return in December from a Thanksgiving holiday break.
A group of 14 senators from both U.S. parties issued a statement pledging to “pass bipartisan Iran sanctions legislation as soon as possible.”
The U.S. public backs an interim agreement along the lines being considered in Geneva, with 56 percent in favor to 39 percent against, according to a poll carried out by ORC International for CNN television and published yesterday.
Opponents of the proposed accord include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said it would ease sanctions too much.
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