GENEVA -- Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Geneva Friday night in a bid to conclude an accord with Iran over its nuclear program, a first step to a comprehensive agreement intended to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon while easing punitive international sanctions that have been imposed on that country.
The State Department said that Kerry decided to make the trip after consulting with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and the U.S. negotiating team.
The wording of the State Department’s announcement – it said Kerry’s goal was “to help narrow the differences and move closer to an agreement” – indicated that a deal was not yet in the bag, and it appeared possible that his trip here would not result in an agreement. That is what happened two weeks ago, when Kerry and ministers from five other major powers traveled to Geneva but failed to reach agreement after France publicly said it would not play “a fool’s game.”
Kerry and his counterparts from Britain, Germany, Russia and China incorporated the French position into their negotiation position, but Iran rejected it.
This week, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius did a repeat performance, demanding that the U.S. and other world powers show “firmness” and stick to the offer Iran had rejected.
It’s a high stakes mission for Kerry and for President Barack Obama, who are under intense attack from Israeli leaders to raise demands in the talks for a complete halt to nuclear enrichment, a demand Iran says it will not accept. And they are under strong pressure by Congress to impose new sanctions against Iran, which the administration has said will prevent the very goal from coming about that Congress seeks – bringing Iran’s nuclear enrichment under tight international controls.
One possibly hopeful sign was that talks were still running late into the night.
“The discussions may very well go late into the evening tonight,” said Marie Harf, deputy State Department spokeswoman. But this came from the U.S. side, in a statement explaining why Kerry was traveling to Geneva.
A contrary indication was the fact that Ashton did not issue any statement about ministers flying to Geneva, and her spokesman did not brief reporters.
If Kerry pulls off the agreement, it would be the first such accord between the international community with Iran in a decade and the first step toward a comprehensive agreement that would be negotiated over the next six months. It also could lead in time to more normal relations between Iran and the rest of the world.
Ashton, who co-chairs the talks on behalf of the United States, three European countries, Russia and China, had planned to invite all the ministers if a deal appeared to be in the offing. But an aide said that the Kerry trip resulted from a telephone conversation between Ashton and Kerry. British Foreign Secretary William Hague tweeted that he would be coming, and other ministers were also expected to attend.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was the first to arrive, landing in Geneva Friday evening and going straight into talks with Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister. But Lavrov, too, wasn’t invited. Ashton’s spokesman, Michael Mann, said that Lavrov had come on his own accord.
Even before Kerry’s announcement, the State Department sought to dampen expectations.
“Talks are ongoing right now. At the same time, technical experts are also meeting,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at the regular midday briefing in Washington. “So because of that, and because, of course, negotiations are fluid, our sleeves are rolled up, we’re knee-deep in the negotiations, but I can’t give a specific update to all of you on where the text stands.”
She added that a trip by Kerry is “not a prediction of the outcome. These negotiations are ongoing. They still would be. There are tough issues on the table. That’s what the negotiating team is working through.”
Psaki did not spell out the sticking points for the drafters of the agreement, though she made repeated references to the issue of Iran’s nuclear enrichment. She said the deal under discussion would include “significant limits on Iran’s enrichment capabilities and existing stockpiles of uranium” that would “halt the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and roll it back in key aspects.”
She also reiterated the U.S. government’s position that the lifting of so-called “core sanctions,” including those related to Iranian oil exports, are not under consideration as Western nations put together a sanctions relief package for Iran. Psaki said only “reversible sanctions relief” was under consideration.
The only official who seemed eager to discuss the talks was Zarif, who gave a series of interviews to the Iranian media.
The Iranian Student News Agency quoted Zarif as saying that the two sides had reached agreement on “90 percent” of the issues, but he added there were “one or two issues which are of great significance.” He did not elaborate.
The Fars News Agency quoted him as warning, in words similar to those used often by Western diplomats, that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed.
“As long as we have not come to terms over everything, it can be said that we have not achieved agreement on anything. Many of these issues are about to be solved,” Zarif said.
And he told Press TV, an English-language channel, that he was “not pessimistic” about the outcome of the talks.
He remained adamant about Iran’s “right” to continue enriching uranium; Iran has produced stockpiles far in excess of its immediate needs. That, in turn, has aroused Western concerns that Iran might be preparing to break out of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and build an atomic bomb.
“Our right to enrichment is our red line,” Zarif told Press TV. “Enrichment . . . will continue with any agreement. . . . We will not accept anything other than that. We have the right . . . the right needs to be respected. It is an inalienable right.”
But then he added: “There are ways of addressing it.”
Hannah Allam and Anita Kumar in Washington contributed to this report.