Hopes soar for Iran deal as Kerry heads to Geneva
Hopes soared Friday for a breakthrough in nuclear talks between Iran and world powers as US Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers flocked to Geneva to try to clinch a deal.
Washington said Kerry's visit, the second in two weeks after he and other foreign ministers failed to agree an accord in earlier talks, was aimed at "continuing to help narrow the differences and move closer to an agreement."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was also set to join the talks, a French diplomatic source said, while British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Twitter he would be there on Saturday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov already arrived in the Swiss city on Friday afternoon. Kerry was expected on Saturday morning.
This third round of talks 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 from November 7-10, 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 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.
Friday's third day of talks in Geneva saw a narrowing of differences as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Jarad Zarif met with P5+1 chief negotiator and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
"To a good degree, we have moved (closer) towards agreement," deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi told Iranian media late Friday, adding however that "some main issues still remain."
"God willing we will reach a result," Zarif told Iranian media, saying there was "room for optimism."
Lavrov held a meeting late Friday with Zarif and later with Ashton.
Reports said two issues remained real sticking points: Iran's "right" to uranium enrichment and its Arak reactor, which could provide Iran with weapons-grade plutonium.
Mark Hibbs, analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the fact that Kerry was coming to Geneva again showed a deal was near.
"If it isn't very close, I can't believe that Kerry would expend the political capital to cross the pond for this, especially with Congress breathing down his neck," Hibbs told AFP.
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 US meanwhile there is a push by lawmakers to ignore President Barack Obama's pleas and pass yet more sanctions on Iran if there is no deal -- or one seen as too soft.
This risks spoiling Iran's apparent newfound appetite for rapprochement with the West since the cleric Rouhani, himself a former nuclear negotiator and seen as a relative moderate, replaced the more hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August.
Rouhani is under pressure to show the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei the first fruits of his "charm offensive", and it is unclear whether the minor sanctions relief on offer is enough.
© 2013 AFP