GENEVA – Hopes soared Saturday for a breakthrough in nuclear talks between Iran and world powers as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers flocked to Geneva to try to clinch a deal.
It will be the second time in two weeks that Kerry and other top diplomats will hunker down in a smart Geneva hotel after intensive talks that ultimately failed shortly after midnight there on Nov. 10.
Kerry decided to return for another try “in light of the progress being made” and “with the hope that an agreement will be reached,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said Friday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had already arrived in the Swiss city Friday afternoon. Kerry was expected to arrive on Saturday morning.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Germany’s top diplomat, Guido Westerwelle, were due to join them then.
The announcements came as a third day of discussions between Iran and political directors from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — the P5+1 — continued.
This third round of talks since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election in June is seen as the biggest hope in years to resolve the decade-old standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program, which world powers want halted but which Tehran insists is peaceful.
Failure could see Iran resuming the expansion of its atomic activities, the adding to already painful sanctions and possible Israeli and even U.S. military action.
Both sides say they want a deal but getting an accord palatable to hard-liners 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 want Iran to freeze for six months key parts of its nuclear program.
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 said.
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.
In the United States, 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 hard-line 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.