Joby Warrick & William Booth — Washington Post Nov 7, 2013
Nuclear talks with Iran entered a critical stage Thursday as diplomats said they were moving closer to an interim deal to give Iran modest relief from economic sanctions in exchange for a temporary freeze of some of its nuclear activities.
Western and Iranian officials hinted at an announcement as early as Friday on a phased plan that reportedly would include the most significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear facilities in nearly a decade.
Diplomats from Iran and six world powers huddled privately in Geneva to work through details of the proposed freeze, which U.S. officials described as a “first step” in a comprehensive pact restricting Tehran’s future ability to seek atomic weapons. Reports that the sides were nearing a breakthrough drew an angry response from key U.S. allies, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who blasted the U.S.-backed proposal as “a monumental mistake.”
Although Iran has not yet responded publicly to the freeze plan, its chief negotiator said the sides were “making progress,” while acknowledging that the discussions were “tough.”
“I believe it is possible to reach an understanding or an agreement before we close these negotiations tomorrow evening,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN in an interview on the sidelines of the talks.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that any interim agreement would “address Iran’s most advanced nuclear activities, increase transparency so Iran will not be able to use the cover of talks to advance its program, and create time and space as we negotiate a comprehensive agreement.”
In a sign of progress, U.S. and Iranian diplomats held separate talks Thursday afternoon that lasted nearly an hour, a senior State Department official said. It was the second such bilateral meeting since the nuclear negotiations resumed thee weeks ago.
“It was a substantive and serious conversation,” the official said of the talks between U.S. delegation leader Wendy Sherman and her Iranian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Seyyed Abbas Araghchi.
As the negotiations recessed for the night, Zarif and the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, agreed to meet early Friday to “work through some issues,” Ashton spokesman Michael Mann said.
While many details remained unclear, a senior U.S. officials said the “freeze” proposal would include both a suspension of nuclear activities and other restrictions, in return for “limited, targeted and reversible” easing of some financial sanctions. But Zarif, in the CNN interview, suggested that the agreement would allow some production of nuclear reactor fuel and would include recognition of Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy.
“There won’t be a suspension of our enrichment program in its entirety,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
The prospect that Iran could be granted even partial relief from sanctions has prompted protests from Saudi officials as well as Israel’s conservative-led government, and Israeli officials attacked the Geneva proposal as seriously flawed.