GENEVA -- Amid expectations of an imminent breakthrough, the U.S. and five other major powers met Wednesday with Iran for the third time in five weeks to work out the first stage of a comprehensive accord to rein in Iran’s controversial nuclear program in exchange for relief from crippling sanctions.
After the failure to reach an accord in talks less than two weeks ago, the signals were mixed Wednesday on whether the preliminary deal might occur this week or must await a fourth meeting.
Said the senior official on the U.S. negotiating team, which is headed by Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, “All arrived here with the commitment to do the hard work needed to reach an agreement” but “we’re not in any rush to just get any deal done.” The official, speaking only anonymously as a condition of the briefing, also noted it was unusual in diplomacy to have two sets of talks practically back to back..
The more telling sign may be that Geneva’s InterContinental Hotel, which hosts nearly all the delegations, told reporters they'd have to clear their rooms Friday – the day Kerry and his colleagues probably would arrive if there’s a deal.
“Who knows what will happen?” EU spokesman Michael Mann replied, when asked whether Kerry and other foreign ministers would fly to Geneva this week.
The initial meeting of the seven delegates, chaired by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, was brief and dealt only with how the talks would proceed Wednesday through Friday. Earlier, Ashton had a separate meeting with Zarif that Mann said was “good” and “positive.”
The goal of the negotiations is to reach the first stage of an accord that will assure the world that Iran’s program of nuclear enrichment has entirely peaceful aims and couldn’t be used to build an atomic bomb. Iran now has a sizable stockpile of low-enriched uranium, as well as some 200 kilograms –440 pounds – of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity; enough, if it’s purified further, to build a bomb, experts say.
Under the proposed interim deal, Iran would cease adding new centrifuges that could turn the mid-enriched uranium into the grade needed for weapons, halt the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity and expand access to its facilities for the International Atomic Energy Agency. In exchange it would obtain relief from some of the international economic sanctions.
It wasn’t clear how the negotiators will overcome the dispute over whether Iran has the right to enrich uranium, as it insists, which the United States, France and other countries have resisted. One possibility is to finesse the legal interpretation of the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty issue by allowing Iran to assert unilaterally that it will continue to produce low-enriched uranium.
Officials apparently are hoping to avert the drama of the Nov. 7-8 talks, which saw expectations rise dramatically after Kerry unexpectedly turned up in Geneva halfway through the two-day meeting only to fall when his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, said France wouldn’t play a “fool’s game” by supporting the deal then on the table.
It turned out that Ashton, the convener of the negotiations, had invited only Kerry, and then all the other ministers turned up of their own accord. Fabius, who flew in from Paris, arrived ahead of Kerry, who was traveling from Israel after hearing a bitter denunciation of the talks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Lady Ashton asked Mr. Kerry to come to Geneva since there were some particularly American issues to discuss concerning sanctions,” the senior U.S. official said. “Some others came as well.”
Ashton’s spokesman concurred. “She invited Kerry to come, and when others expressed their desire to come, they came,” Mann later said.
The atmospherics before Wednesday’s opening session were mixed.
President Barack Obama’s all-out drive to persuade Congress not to impose more sanctions on Iran appeared to have succeeded, and an agreement, even if just a first step, may give Obama the basis for maintaining the suspension of legislation to bring about new sanctions.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Israel the “rabid dog” of the Middle East, a retort to Netanyahu’s repeated denunciations of Iran. French President Francois Hollande, just back from a visit to Israel, said Khamenei’s remarks were “unacceptable.” But aides said France was still hoping for an agreement.
Meanwhile, even the most severe critics of the discussions here are resigned to an accord coming about.
“The interim deal is probably a done deal,” said Emily Landau, a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies, said in a phone briefing arranged by the Israel Project, which has sponsored many critics of the negotiating process. “Now let’s focus on the comprehensive deal, and make sure that it’s a comprehensive deal.”