By Elise Labott
World powers and Iran hope to reach an initial agreement at talks this week on Tehran’s nuclear program, diplomats and Iran’s foreign minister said.
If Iran agrees at talks in Geneva to take steps toward curbing its nuclear program, a senior U.S. administration official said Iran could see some relief from economic sanctions that have crippled its economy
"What we're looking for is a first phase, a first step, an initial understanding that stops Iran's nuclear program from moving forward and rolls it back for first time in decades," the senior U.S. administration official told reporters in Geneva on the eve of a fresh round talks between Iran and world powers.
In exchange, Washington would be willing to offer Iran "very limited, temporary, reversible sanctions relief,” the official said.
On Thursday, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - the United States, China, Russia, France and Britain - as well as Germany will hold talks Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Diplomats said they expected Zarif to present a roadmap for a nuclear deal aimed at convincing the international community it is not seeking a nuclear weapon.
The official said there had been a “key shift” from Tehran, which seemed serious about reaching a deal. This official, and other Western diplomats said, an initial agreement that addressed Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20%, its growing stockpiles of enriched uranium and international monitoring create space for negotiations on a comprehensive deal.
With Iran’s nuclear program continuing to develop, Undersecretary Wendy Sherman, the lead American negotiator, said it was important to pick up the pace of the negotiations.
“I think we can make rapid progress to bring a halt to any advance in the program, which will put time on the clock to allow us to negotiate a comprehensive agreement,” Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, the lead American negotiator, told the television network al- Arabiya this week.
Another senior Western diplomat said the world powers negotiating with Iran believe a quick framework agreement, implemented in stages, would be preferable to confidence-building measures by both sides in the hopes of developing enough trust to reach a deal later.
“You have a global package, you have a clear view of the end game. And then you build on not confidence building measures, but steps to get to the end game. Then you change the equation, and then, it seems to us, it is more serious,” the diplomat said. “The clock is ticking . (Iranian) centrifuges continue working, so we want quick results. And on the Iranian side that is what they say they want. “
In interviews after his meeting in Paris with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Zarif voiced optimism a deal was possible during this week’s round of talks.
“But I can only talk for our side,” Zarif added. “I cannot talk for the other side.”
In an interview with Le Monde, Zarif said "If that's not the case, it's not a disaster as long as we make progress," he added.
Iran has been on a charm offensive since the election of President Hassan Rouhani, who has made lifting tough economic sanctions against his country a priority. During a visit to the U.N. General Assembly in September, Rouhani’ s moderate diplomatic approach raised hopes in the West of a thaw in relations with Tehran and progress in negotiations on its nuclear program.
Rouhani’ s visit culminated in a phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama and a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif. It was the first such high-level contact between the two sworn enemies since Iran's 1979 revolution, which sent relations between the two into a deep freeze.
At the previous round of talks in Geneva last month, Iran presented a framework for negotiations that American negotiators called “detailed and substantive”. The tone of the negotiations appeared to signal a shift, a departure from the diplomatic standoff that prevailed under former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The world powers, known as the P5+1, have offered a package of economic incentives to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
In exchange for easing some sanctions, the group wants Tehran to shut its underground enrichment facility at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom.
The group also wants Iran to ship its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20% purity, seen as a jumping part to producing weapons-grade uranium.
Iran wants the international community to acknowledge its right to enrich uranium under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The six negotiating countries group has balked at that, although privately some diplomats say a final deal could allow Iran to enrich uranium to a low purity, such as 3% to 5%.
They also proposed fuel for a medical reactor and easing sanctions on aviation spare parts as part of the deal.
In the lead-up to this week’s talks, technical experts from the six powers and Iran have to discuss the details of a possible agreement. Senior administration officials said that American sanctions experts met with the Iranian team to discuss the range of U.S. sanctions and the possibility of sanctions relief. Diplomats said possible measures under consideration involve a temporary unfreezing of some seized Iranian assets worldwide, in addition to possible lifting of sanctions barring trade with Iran in gold and other precious metals and petrochemicals.
But diplomats cautioned against offering too many incentives to Iran in the latest negotiations, calling sanctions the “best leverage” the international community has in forcing Iran to place curbs on its program.
“There could be a positive outcome if we remain strong. The last thing would be to give up too early in terms of sanctions, because then the Iranian regime will feel the pressure is weaker and they will try to achieve as much as they can,” one Western diplomat said. “The key word is reciprocity,. What they are asking for now, quite frankly, is nice words on their side, or reversible measures against the lifting of sanctions. That is simply not reasonable. We have some demands, and they have to comply with those demands. It is not a game.”
Any plan to relax the sanctions against Iran is likely to meet stiff opposition from Israel, which asserts that Tehran is only months away from developing a nuclear weapon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met with Kerry in Jerusalem on Tuesday, warned against easing up on the pressure against Iran while it continued its nuclear development.
“I’d be very worried with any partial deals that enable Iran to maintain those capabilities but begin to reduce sanctions because I think this could undermine the longevity and durability of the sanctions regime,” he said. “I believe that as long as they continue their goal to enrich uranium, to get nuclear weapons, the pressure should be maintained and even increased.”
Kerry reiterated the U.S. goal of a deal that ensures Iran has “no capacity to produce a weapon of mass destruction.”
“No deal is better than a bad deal,” he told the Israeli leader.
Members from both parties in Congress have urged the administration not to prematurely loosen any of the sanctions that are choking Iran's economy. Legislation is being drafted that could tighten the sanctions regime until a deal is reached.
“Tough sanctions are exactly what has brought Iran to the table now, and tightening sanctions as we engage diplomatically affords us the opportunity to apply further pressure and force Iran’s leaders to choose between regime survival and a nuclear weapon,”
wrote Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, in an op-ed for Politico. Rubio has been a strong proponent of additional sanctions against Iran.
The Obama administration has urged Congress to hold off on additional measures to provide them flexibility during the talks. Other diplomats agreed that while the threat of additional sanctions might be helpful, the passing of new legislation would not help establish trust with Iran at a critical point.
“We consider it would be a mistake,” one diplomat said. “That would be the best way to destroy any chance of negotiations.”