Iran Nuclear Deal Edges Closer as Geneva Talks Gather Pace

Iran and world powers edged closer to breaking the decade-long stalemate over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program, saying an initial accord is possible when they convene for a second day of negotiations tomorrow.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif canceled a trip to Rome to extend his stay in Geneva, where he’ll hold a second meeting with European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton. Zarif said in an interview that the sides have agreed on the framework for an accord, and will try to fill in details tomorrow. His deputy, Abbas Araghchi, said a deal may be reached in Geneva even if that involves extending talks into a third day. Ashton’s spokesman, Michael Mann, said negotiations have entered a “serious phase.”

Iran has been offered “limited, targeted and reversible relief” from sanctions in return for concrete and verifiable concessions on its nuclear work, White House spokesman Jay Carney said in Washington. An accord along those lines would be intended as a first step toward a comprehensive deal to remove the specter of another Middle East war. The U.S. and Israel say they’re ready to use force to stop Iran getting nuclear bombs, which Iran denies seeking.

Hassan Rouhani’s election as Iran’s president in June and his pledge to restore an economy squeezed by the sanctions has given new momentum to diplomacy.

Cooperation ‘Reversible’

Iran has signaled it’s willing to make compromises, shelving a demand for immediate recognition of its right to enrich uranium, and saying it may be ready to limit its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity, Zarif said Iran’s cooperation would also be “reversible” if the U.S. failed to ease sanctions, he said.

Efforts toward an accord have run into opposition that leaders on both sides are seeking to assuage.

Some U.S. lawmakers, with support from Israel, are pushing for sanctions to be tightened, not eased. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said today that any deal easing the pressure on Iran would be “ a mistake of historic proportions.” U.S. allies among Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, have also signaled reservations.

‘Transformative Course’

A group of 79 former U.S. military officials and diplomats, including three former ambassadors to Israel, expressed backing for the pursuit of a diplomatic solution, calling it an “ambitious and transformative course” toward a more peaceful Middle East. “You will undoubtedly face opposition to your decision to engage Iran,” they said in an open letter to President Barack Obama.

Last week, Obama sent top officials to Congress to urge lawmakers to allow time for diplomacy to work, instead of pressing for tighter sanctions that may derail it. Zarif said he expects Obama to resist the domestic pressure.

Iranian conservatives have criticized Rouhani and Zarif for taking too soft an approach. In a speech on Nov. 3, the eve of anti-American rallies in Iran to mark the anniversary of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy by Islamic revolutionaries, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sent a message of support for the negotiators. He said they’re “sons of the revolution,” carrying out a mission that he endorses.

‘Basic Concerns’

International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors who monitor Iran’s 17 declared nuclear facilities are due to fly to Tehran next week. They’re seeking access to sites that they’ve been barred from visiting, to investigate a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program.

“Iran has to understand that significant sanctions relief cannot happen if it’s not going to cooperate with the IAEA and solve these basic concerns,” David Albright, a founder of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said on a conference call today.

The Geneva talks involve officials from the U.S., China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K. as well as Ashton and the Iranian delegation, and were scheduled to end tomorrow.

Araghchi and U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman had a separate meeting today that lasted about an hour, according to a State Department official who asked not to be named in line with department policy.

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