Geneva (AFP) – Top Western diplomats rushed to Geneva on Friday as the prospect emerged of a breakthrough deal on Iran’s nuclear program in international talks.
The hoped-for agreement — seen as a first step ahead of further talks on a final deal — could see Tehran freeze its nuclear efforts for as long as six months in exchange for some relief from the sanctions that have battered its economy.
Breaking off a Middle East tour to join the negotiations, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva after difficult talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who urged world powers to back away from the deal.
The foreign ministers of France, Britain and Germany also arrived in Geneva after last-minute announcements they would join the talks between Iran and their countries along with the U.S., Russia and China.
The abrupt arrivals of the foreign ministers spurred speculation that a deal announcement was imminent. But officials warned the talks could still unravel.
“There has been progress but nothing has been agreed yet,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
He added that the six powers “want a deal that will be the first substantive response to concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.”
If a preliminary deal is announced, it would be a landmark occasion after a decade of efforts to limit Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, which the powers suspect are aimed at developing nuclear weapons.
Iran has repeatedly denied that, saying its nuclear program is exclusively for generating electricity and for medical purposes.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said he believes a deal could be reached “before we close these negotiations” in Geneva, started Thursday and due to end late Friday. The two sides were expected to draft a joint statement for the meeting’s conclusion.
Reports say the proposed deal could see Tehran stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, which is just a few technical steps from weapons grade, reduce existing stockpiles and agree not to activate its plutonium reactor at Arak.
Global powers would in exchange take limited and “reversible” measures to ease sanctions, such as unfreezing some Iranian funds in foreign accounts.
Negotiators would then have time to work out a more comprehensive deal that Tehran has said it hopes could be in place within a year.
During Kerry’s pre-Geneva stopover in Israel, Netanyahu vowed his country — which is not party to the talks with Iran — would not be bound by any international agreement. Israel, he said, reserved the right to do whatever was necessary to defend itself — a clear allusion to a pre-emptive military strike.
“Iran got the deal of the century and the international community got a bad deal, this is a very bad deal. Israel utterly rejects it,” Netanyahu told reporters. “Israel is not obliged by this agreement and Israel will do everything it needs to defend itself and the security of its people.”
The State Department said Kerry was going to Geneva “in an effort to help narrow differences in negotiations” and at the invitation of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Kerry was due to hold three-way talks with Zarif and Ashton, who is representing the six powers.
Ashton’s spokesman, Michael Mann, said there was “ongoing contact” with the Iranian side on Friday and “very intense work.”
“We are making good progress, it’s a very serious process,” he told reporters.
In their second meeting in Geneva in less than a month, Iranian negotiators sat down for a series of talks on Thursday that Western officials described as “substantive” and “productive.”
The international community is represented in the talks by the P5+1 group — permanent UN Security Council members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, plus Germany.
The talks had previously dragged on for years but were given new momentum by the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, seen as a relative moderate.
This week’s meeting is the second since Rouhani took office in August pledging to resolve the nuclear dispute and lift sanctions by engaging with world powers.
Iran is anxious for relief from crippling economic sanctions that have cut oil revenues by more than half, caused the value of the rial to plunge and pushed inflation above 40 percent.
The West is also keen to seize a rare opportunity to build bridges with Iran after decades of hostility, opening the door to engaging with Tehran on other issues like the conflict in Syria, where Iran has backed President Bashar al-Assad against insurgents.
President Barack Obama said in an interview with NBC News that the agreement being fleshed out would keep the bulk of sanctions on the Islamic Republic in place, and any relief could be reversed.
“We don’t have to trust them. What we have to do is to make sure that there is a good deal in place from the perspective of us verifying what they’re doing,” Obama said.