Iran nuclear talks headed into third day with Russia, China officials joining Kerry


McClatchy Foreign Staff

Talks over Iran’s nuclear program headed for a dramatic climax as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif huddled for five hours late into the night Friday in hopes of finding a way to rein in Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

A senior State Department official said later that they had made progress and that talks would continue Saturday.

“Over the course of the evening, we continued to make progress as we worked to the narrow the gaps,” said the official, whose anonymity was a condition of the briefing. “There is more work to do. The meetings will resume tomorrow morning.”

The U.S. and other world powers have long suspected that Iran’s program for enriching uranium would lead to a nuclear weapon, and both sides hoped they could agree in Geneva on an interim accord that would mark the first real progress in 10 years of acrimony.

The drama played out at the European Union’s mission to the United Nations, where Kerry and Zarif met until 11:30 p.m., together with the EU’s chief foreign affairs official, Baroness Catherine Ashton.

Ashton’s spokesman, Michael Mann, said afterward that the talks were “good . . . serious and businesslike.”

When Kerry and Zarif left the room, “they wished each other good night, and went off,” he said. “It seemed friendly.”

Mann said the talks would continue Saturday, but he was unable to say when and in what format. He indicated there was no script. Asked what came next, Mann said: “Heaven knows.”

Kerry and the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Great Britain flew to Geneva on short notice Friday in anticipation of an agreement, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and a top Chinese official were expected to arrive Saturday.

But it wasn’t clear whether an agreement could be reached after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a fit of pique, publicly berated Kerry for having agreed to what Netanyahu called a bad deal.

“This is a very bad deal and Israel utterly rejects it,” Netanyahu told reporters in Tel Aviv. “Israel is not obliged by this agreement and Israel will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and to defend the security of its people.

Kerry canceled a planned statement, apparently to avoid a public confrontation with Netanyahu.

But on arriving in Geneva, Kerry told reporters that “some very important issues” were “unresolved, and they had to be “properly, thoroughly addressed.”

President Barack Obama telephoned Netanyahu on Friday to “update him” on the talks in Geneva, the White House said. Obama “underscored his strong commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” but it seemed unlikely he changed Netanyahu’s mind. The White House said only that Obama and Netanyahu agreed to “stay in touch.”

The unexpected announcement of Kerry’s trip Friday morning in the midst of a swing through the Middle East and North Africa raised hopes that a breakthrough was at hand. But Netanyahu’s scathing public remarks cast a damper over the talks and raised questions whether the U.S. was ready to clinch to a deal.

Israel is the most vocal opponent of a diplomatic settlement with Iran, but leading Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia are also skeptical that the Iran dispute can be settled peacefully.

“I understand the Iranians are walking around very satisfied in Geneva, as well they should because they got everything and paid nothing,” Netanyahu said.

The White House responded that no deal had been concluded. “Any critique of the deal is premature,” spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters at the White House.

Others said Netanyahu’s criticism was hyperbolic. Iran is seeking the lifting of the most damaging sanctions, on oil sales and international banking links, but U.S. and other international negotiators in Geneva say that will not occur until there is a comprehensive agreement, which will take months still to negotiate and is unlikely to take effect for another year.

Instead, the interim deal being discussed here would be based on a series of so-called confidence-building measures, which would see the easing of some sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing to curb its nuclear enrichment program. Iran already has produced an enormous stockpile of low-enriched uranium and some 440 pounds of uranium enriched to 25 percent purity, only a few steps short of the 90 percent pure uranium that would be needed for a nuclear weapon.

The interim deal would allow the United States and its allies to monitor Iranian cooperation and improve the atmosphere for negotiations leading to a final resolution of the dispute.

The United States apparently has agreed in principle to one major change in its positions, accepting that Iran does have the right to enrich uranium after years of insisting that Iran had no such right.

Zarif declared on the eve of the negotiations that it was too late to stop enrichment, because Iran already had the technology and thousands of scientists engaged in supporting the process.

Anita Kumar in Washington and Lesley Clark in New Orleans contributed.

Email:; Twitter: @roygutmanmcc

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