Lavrov joins Iran nuclear talks as optimism grows
Hopes rose Friday for a breakthrough in nuclear talks between Iran and world powers as Russia's Sergei Lavrov became the first foreign minister to arrive in Geneva to try to clinch a deal.
"Last night we were a long way from foreign ministers coming. Today it has got closer," Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, adding that there was "room for optimism" on the third day of discussions.
It remained unconfirmed whether US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Chinese, British, German and French counterparts would also be joining talks for the second time in two weeks.
This third meeting since President Hassan Rouhani's election in June is seen as the biggest hope in years to resolve the decade-old standoff over Iran's nuclear programme, which world powers want halted but which Tehran insists is peaceful.
Failure might mean Iran resuming the expansion of its atomic activities, Washington and others adding to already painful sanctions, and possible Israeli and even US military action.
At the last three-day gathering, top diplomats including Kerry flew in but went home empty-handed after cracks emerged among the powers -- fissures which diplomats insist are now repaired.
Both sides say they want a deal but getting an accord palatable to hardliners both in the United States and in the Islamic republic -- as well as Israel -- is tough.
According to a draft proposal, the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany -- the P5+1 -- want Iran to freeze for six months key parts of its nuclear programme.
In return Iran would get minor and, Western officials insist, "reversible" sanctions relief, including unlocking several billion dollars in oil revenues and easing trade restrictions on precious metals and aircraft parts.
This hoped-for "first phase" deal would build trust and ease tensions while negotiators push on for a final accord that ends once and for all fears that Tehran will get an atomic bomb.
Iranian diplomats were downbeat after Thursday's sessions.
But on Friday, Tehran signalled an improvement after only an hour-long meeting between Zarif and the powers' chief negotiator Catherine Ashton, who went into another meeting at 1500 GMT.
"The negotiations are progressing well but we still have differences of opinion over a limited number of issues," Zarif said on Facebook.
"God willing we will reach a result," he told Iranian media.
Ashton's spokesman Michael Mann said that the earlier meeting was "useful", without giving details.
"We are glad to hear the Iranians are also seeing things in a positive way, but we'll have to wait and see how things develop in the afternoon," he said.
IRNA said two issues remained real sticking points: Iran's "right" to enrichment and the Arak reactor, which could provide Iran with weapons-grade plutonium.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said this week that Tehran would not be "retreating one step from the rights of the Iranian nation".
But the P5+1 are loath to endorse this right in any way that might be taken by Iran as a licence to enrich after numerous UN Security Council resolutions demanding a suspension.
Netanyahu says no
Many in Israel, widely assumed to have a formidable nuclear arsenal itself, are alarmed about the mooted deal, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigning vigorously against it.
Netanyahu wants all of Iran's nuclear infrastructure dismantled, not parts of it frozen, believing that the P5+1 will leave Iran with an ability to develop nuclear weapons.
"Yes, Iran's race to the bomb would be slowed down, but an accord would guarantee that it would eventually cross the finishing line." Ari Shavit, columnist for Israeli daily Haaretz, wrote in the International New York Times.
In the United States meanwhile, lawmakers were making a push to ignore President Barack Obama's pleas, warning that they would pass yet more sanctions on Iran if there is no deal -- or one seen as too soft.
Raising the pressure, US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in Washington on Thursday that lawmakers would move to impose new trade restrictions in December.
This risks spoiling Iran's apparent newfound appetite for rapprochement with the West since the cleric Rouhani, himself a former nuclear negotiator, replaced the more hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August.
Rouhani is under pressure to show Khamenei the first fruits of his "charm offensive", and it is unclear whether the minor sanctions relief on offer is enough.
© 2013 AFP