GENEVA — On the eve of crucial negotiations over Iran’s controversial nuclear program, U.S. and Iranian diplomats expressed hope today that they will be able reach an initial understanding leading to a comprehensive accord by Friday.
The deal would involve lifting for six months some of the international economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran in exchange for its curbing the enrichment of uranium.
Such a deal would mark a breakthrough in the decade-long dispute over a program that the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China fear is intended to produce a nuclear weapon.
“What we’re looking for now is a first phase, a first step, an initial understanding that stops Iran’s nuclear program for the first time in decades and potentially rolls some of it back,” a senior U.S. official said. The official, a member of the U.S. delegation led by Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, couldn’t be identified under the rules of the briefing.
At the heart of the proposal is the demand that Iran halt the expansion of its ability to enrich uranium, presumably by not buying new centrifuges, the equipment used in the enrichment process. That’s a change from previous demands that Iran stop enriching uranium past a certain purity.
Iran already has produced a sizable stockpile of low-enriched uranium and a more worrisome supply of 200 kilograms — 440 pounds — of uranium enriched to 25 percent purity. Experts say there’s no clear need in Iran’s peaceful nuclear program for the latter amount, and that if Iran decided to, that 25 percent could be enriched quickly to the high-level purity needed to produce a nuclear weapon.
Iran’s new foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said Iran was “prepared to reach an agreement” in the talks this week.
“We are optimistic that we can move forward,” he told France 24, an all-news television channel. Zarif said that while the negotiations were expected to take at least a year to complete, Iran needed to have a sense of the final outcome. He appeared to be referring to Iran’s demand to end the most devastating sanctions, which limit oil sales and international banking relations. The accord under discussion this week, he said, addresses the most immediate concerns of Iran, the U.S. and the five other nations.
“I believe it’s not difficult to reach that agreement,” Zarif said. If the six major powers “are prepared to reach an agreement, then we can have an agreement.”
Because so little has come out about the behind-scenes talks since they kicked off in Geneva in mid-October, it wasn’t clear whether the two sides were genuinely on the edge of an agreement or whether both were posturing and professing eagerness for a deal in order to increase psychological pressure on each other.
The senior U.S. official said the six powers were willing to expand on an offer they had made in February at talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, that Iran rejected at the time. That proposal offered to ease bans on the sale of Iran’s petrochemicals and precious metals in return for a complete halt in uranium enrichment beyond a 20 percent level. This time, it’s a sliding scale.
“We do have a menu of options that allow us to mix and match … what we might be willing to do depending on what they would do,” the official said.
The six-month period for the interim agreement is only a proposal and hasn’t been agreed to, the official said.
One of the biggest questions as the talks resume in Geneva is whether the U.S. Congress will impose additional unilateral sanctions against Iran, a step that Israel and its supporters in Congress favor but the Obama administration adamantly opposes. The senior official appealed to Congress not to do so: “Our experts believe any additional sanctions would be harmful at a truly crucial moment.”
Imposing new sanctions might undercut the prospects for a deal, which would leave “no attractive alternatives,” the official said. In fact, the only alternatives are allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons or going to war to prevent it.
Taking a pause in imposing sanctions isn’t taking a position on sanctions as such. “This is a decision to support or not support diplomacy,” the official said.
“For the first time, Iran appears to be committed to moving the process forward quickly,” the official added.
Zarif, a fluent English speaker who studied at San Francisco State University and the University of Denver and served as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, shouldered some of the blame for the deep lack of trust between his country and the United States and other major powers.
He called the current standoff “an unnecessary crisis” because Iran doesn’t seek nuclear weapons. “We believe that even the perception that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons is detrimental to our security,” he told France 24.
In the three weeks since the first formal round of negotiations in Geneva, Iran had talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna that Zarif described as “very productive.” He called a further set of talks among technical experts from Iran and the six powers “a good round.”
Zarif said that if the negotiations didn’t result in a deal this week, they would at the next round. “I do believe if we cannot reach a breakthrough in this round, it is a disaster,” he said, “because it’s taken a long time to reach this state.”
He said there was a need to build confidence. “We believe the first steps will take us a long way in rebuilding that confidence, and then we can take the more difficult steps,” he said.