From CNN Foreign Affairs Reporter Elise Labott
Iran and world powers are inching closer to a deal at talks on Iran’s nuclear program, senior Obama administration officials and Iran’s Foreign Minister said.
The U.S. officials say the sides are working toward an agreement in Geneva to curb Iran’s nuclear program and providing some relief from economic sanctions that have crippled its economy.
On Thursday, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - the United States, China, Russia, France and Britain - as well as Germany began talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Zarif told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that he hoped the parties could start drafting a framework agreement to announce at the end of talks Friday
“It's a framework that we have agreed upon,” he said. “We are prepared to address some of the most immediate concerns that have been raised and then we expect reciprocally for our concerns to be met.”
Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Geneva on Friday in en effort to narrow differences in the negotiations, two senior State Department officials said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters the United States was looking for an initial agreement that “halts Iran's nuclear program from moving forward and potentially rolls back parts of it.
“The first step would address Iran's most advanced nuclear activities, increase transparency so Iran won't be able to use the cover of talks to advance its program and create time and space as we negotiate a comprehensive agreement,” Carney said at the White House.
In exchange for “concrete, verifiable measures,” to roll back the program, Carney said the so-called P5 plus 1 would consider “limited, targeted and reversible relief that does not affect our core sanctions' architecture.”
According to the deal under discussion, administration officials told CNN that Iran would stop enriching to 20% purity, seen as a jumping off point to producing weapons-grade uranium.
It would also convert a majority of its existing stockpile of enriched to 20% to an unusable state, but would continue to enrich uranium to a low purity of around 3.5%.
“There won't be a suspension of our enrichment program in its entirely,” Zarif said.
Iran wants the international community to acknowledge its right to enrich uranium under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Iran would also refrain from using advanced centrifuges, able to enrich uranium up to five times faster than the older models and would not activate its plutonium reactor at Arak under development
In exchange, Washington could unfreeze some Iranian assets overseas.
In February, President Barack Obama signed an executive order freezing all Iranian government assets held in U.S. and American banks abroad.
The six-country negotiating group could also ease sanctions banning trade in Iranian gold, precious metals and petrochemicals.
A senior official briefing reports on the eve of talks said there had been a “key shift” in recent weeks from Tehran, which seemed serious about reaching a deal.
This official and other Western diplomats said an initial agreement that addressed enrichment and international monitoring could create room for negotiations on a larger pact.
With Iran’s nuclear program continuing to develop, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead American negotiator, said it was important to pick up the pace.
“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,” Sherman told the al- Arabiya television network this week.
Another senior Western diplomat said world powers negotiating with Iran believe a quick framework agreement, implemented in stages, would be preferable.
“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. “
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, his moderate diplomatic approach raised hopes in the West of a thaw in relations and progress in nuclear negotiations.
Rouhani’s visit culminated in a phone call with Obama and a meeting between Kerry and Zarif. It was the first such high-level contact between the two sworn enemies since Iran's 1979 revolution, which sent relations 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 from the diplomatic standoff that prevailed under former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
World powers have offered a similar package of economic incentives.
In exchange for easing some sanctions, the group also wanted Tehran to shut its underground enrichment facility at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom.
It also proposed fuel for a medical reactor and easing sanctions on aviation spare parts as part of the deal.
Senior administration officials have said American sanctions experts have 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,” the diplomat said.
Any plan to relax 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 about easing up on 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, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016, has been a strong proponent of additional sanctions against Iran.
The 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, passing 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.”