GENEVA — Secretary of State John F. Kerry held a third round of direct negotiations with his Iranian counterpart here Saturday night amid talks on a possible deal over Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
In a day of musical chairs and closed-door sessions, top diplomats from six countries — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, along with E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton — held bilateral and trilateral talks with one another and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. As officials emerged from one meeting to begin another, they offered differing accounts of the extent of progress being made and whether agreement during the current negotiating round remains possible.
Kerry, who met with Zarif and Ashton for five hours on Friday and two hours at midday Saturday before holding a third session that began well after dark, made no public comment.
Earlier in the day, as Zarif met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, he told Iranian media that progress was being made and some issues had been resolved. If there is no deal this weekend, he said, negotiators would try again in a week or 10 days. Later, Zarif told the BBC in an interview that his message to President Obama was that “this window of opportunity won’t be open indefinitely,” BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen tweeted.
The countries across the table from Iran were not entirely in agreement among themselves. Officials said that some of the strongest objections to the draft agreement that is the basis for the current high-level talks came from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who said the six should avoid falling for a “fool’s game” that was advantageous to Iran. Fabius’s worry about Israel’s security concerns, which he said must be taken “fully into account,” appeared even stronger than that expressed by Obama, who tried to reassure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Friday telephone call after Netanyahu called the draft “a very bad deal.”
“There is an initial draft that we do not accept,” Fabius told French radio, adding, “I have no certainty that we can finish up” before the departure of the foreign ministers who came to Geneva to lend weight to the talks.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague sounded somewhat more optimistic, telling reporters that the participants would continue “to apply all our efforts to this today to try to seize this opportunity.” Hague said officials were “conscious of the fact that some momentum has built up,” although “there is no fixed time for us to reach a conclusion.”
Both Fabius and Hague cited complications arising from the two main issues in the negotiations. Disagreements center on the status of Iran’s Arak heavy-water reactor and the separate production of highly enriched uranium — both processes that can be used to produce a nuclear weapon — and on what to do with the stockpile of uranium that Iran has already enriched to 20 percent.
Iran, which says it has no interest in weapons production and is producing only electricity, wants Western economic sanctions that are strangling its economy to be lifted.
On Kerry’s arrival in Geneva on Friday, he said “there is not an agreement.” He and his colleagues, he said, were here to help “narrow some differences” rather than to finalize a deal. U.S. officials described the parameters of the agreement as a “first step” toward a comprehensive pact restricting Tehran’s ability to seek atomic weapons.
While administration officials have not publicly revealed details of the freeze proposal offered to Iran, senior U.S. officials briefed on the plan say it suspends the parts of the program that could be used by Tehran to quickly assemble a nuclear weapon.
The plan would not, according to Iranian officials, require Iran to halt all uranium enrichment or dismantle the centrifuges used by Iran to make the low-enriched nuclear fuel used in power plants. Israeli officials and many U.S. lawmakers have insisted on a halt to all uranium enrichment — something Iran says it will never agree to do.
Clifford Kupchan, a former State Department official and an Iran expert, said pressing for a full dismantlement of Iran’s uranium facilities would almost certainly have collapsed the negotiations while creating a rift in an international coalition that has supported financial sanctions until now.
“Any deal with an opponent is an ugly deal,” Kupchan said. “The enrichment train has left the station — Iran already enriches uranium, and they will not roll that back. The choice then is between an ugly deal, a military conflict or tolerating a nuclear-capable Iran. That is a very easy choice.”
Current and former U.S. officials familiar with the broad outlines of the proposed deal said it included significant concessions by Iran, well beyond what many Iran observers believed was possible only a few months earlier.
“It is a very strong proposal from our side,” said one former U.S. official who said he was briefed on some of the details.
Based on past negotiations, the remaining sticking points probably involve the amount of financial relief Iran would receive in return, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the confidential proposal. Iran had sought, unsuccessfully, for a rollback of the harshest sanctions on its oil and banking industries. But instead it is being offered a temporary, conditional rollback of some of the more modest sanctions, the official said.
Warrick reported from Washington.
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