GENEVA (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Friday of significant differences between Iran and six world powers trying to fashion a nuclear agreement, as he and three European foreign ministers tried to narrow the gap. But Russia expressed optimism about a deal.
Officials had reported progress in Thursday's talks. But comments from Kerry and his counterparts from Britain, France and Germany after they arrived in Geneva clearly indicated that obstacles remain for any agreement offering sanctions reductions for nuclear concessions.
Russian news agencies reported late Friday that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would join Kerry and the European ministers in Geneva on Saturday.
A Western diplomat in Geneva told The Associated Press that China is sending a deputy foreign minister to the talks. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to provide such information.
Earlier Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich had said Lavrov would not attend the talks, so the quick change of plans appeared significant.
Iran considers Russia most receptive to its arguments among the six world powers: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
For that reason, Lavrov's presence would add additional muscle to efforts to seal a preliminary deal that the West hopes will culminate with serious constraints on Iran's ability to turn a peaceful nuclear program into making weapons. China also is more supportive of Iran than the United States and its allies are.
Reporting Lavrov's pending arrival, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying Russia expects the talks will produce a "lasting result expected by the international community."
The Russian statement suggested a possible narrowing of differences, hours after Kerry met first with his European counterparts, then with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Catherline Ashton, the EU's top diplomat who convened the talks.
Kerry arrived from Tel Aviv after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during which Kerry tried to defuse Israeli concerns about the Geneva talks. Israel strongly opposes any deal that even slightly lifts sanctions unless Iran is totally stripped of technology that can make nuclear arms.
The talks primarily focus on the size and output of Iran's enrichment program, which can create both reactor fuel and weapons-grade material suitable for a nuclear bomb. Iran insists it is pursuing only nuclear energy, medical treatments and research, but the United States and its allies fear that Iran could turn this material into the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
Kerry said there were "some very important issues on the table that are unresolved." He told reporters, "There is not an agreement at this point in time."
In earlier comments to Israeli television, Kerry suggested Washington was looking for an Iranian commitment to stop any expansion of nuclear activities that could be used to make weapons, as a first step.
"We are asking them to step up and provide a complete freeze over where they are today," Kerry said Thursday.
The six powers negotiating with Tehran are considering a gradual rollback of sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy. In exchange they demand initial curbs on Iran's nuclear program, including a cap on enrichment to a level that can be turned quickly to weapons use.
The six have discussed ending a freeze on up to $50 billion (37 billion euros) in overseas accounts and lifting restrictions on petrochemicals, gold and other precious metals. But their proposal would maintain core sanctions on Iran's oil exports and financial sector, as an incentive for Iran to work toward a comprehensive and permanent nuclear accord.
Tehran could be pressing for more significant relief from the sanctions as part of any first-step deal. Iran's Mehr news agency quoted Iranian delegation member Majid Takht-e Ravanchi as saying his country was asking for an end to sanctions on oil and international banking transactions crippling the ability to repatriate money from oil sales.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius spoke of progress, but told reporters "nothing is hard and fast yet." He said, "We are working to reach an accord which completes the first step to respond to Iran's nuclear program."
Israel has been watching the talks warily from the sidelines. It has frequently dangled the prospect of military action against Iran should negotiations fail to reach the deal it seeks: a total shutdown of uranium enrichment and other nuclear programs Tehran says are peaceful but which could technically be turned toward weapons.
"I understand the Iranians are walking around very satisfied in Geneva as well they should because they got everything and paid nothing," Netanyahu told reporters before meeting Kerry in Tel Aviv.
Asked about Netanyahu's criticism, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said "any critique of the deal is premature" because an agreement has not been reached.
He added: "The United States and Israel are in complete agreement about the need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
Any agreement would be a breakthrough after nearly a decade of mostly inconclusive talks, but would only be the start of a long process to reduce Iran's potential nuclear threat, with no guarantee of ultimate success.
Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, told Iranian state TV on Thursday that the six "clearly said that they accept the proposed framework by Iran."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said an initial 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."
Iran, which denies any interest in such weapons, currently runs over 10,000 centrifuges that have created tons of fuel-grade material that can be further enriched to arm nuclear warheads. It also has nearly 440 pounds (200 kilograms) of higher-enriched uranium in a form that can be turned into weapons much more quickly. Experts say 550 pounds (250 kilograms) of 20 percent-enriched uranium are needed to produce a single warhead.
Besides Israel, the United States also faces pressure from many U.S. lawmakers with the same demand as Netanyahu — they want enrichment to stop altogether in exchange for loosening sanctions.
Iran's new moderate leadership, meanwhile, is being pushed by hard-liners seeking significant sanctions reductions in exchange for scaling back enrichment.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee, AP Writer Vladimir Isachenkov and AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this story.
- Foreign Policy
- Politics & Government
- John Kerry
- Sergey Lavrov