Hope to try to narrow differences’, says Kerry; focus on framework pact, says Iran

Iran and the six global powers appear edging closer to a major breakthrough in their talks in Geneva, where the arrival of John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, has added to the air of anticipation that nuclear tensions that have dogged Tehran’s relations with the West may soon be eased.

Arriving at Geneva airport, Mr. Kerry said he hoped to bridge some important gaps during talks with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Striking a note of caution, Mr. Kerry said: “I want to emphasise there is not an agreement at this point.” He added: “We hope to try to narrow these differences but I don’t think anybody should mistake there are some important gaps that have to be closed.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle have joined Mr. Kerry in Geneva. Talks are likely to be extended to Saturday, when the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov is expected to join his counterparts from the U.S., Britain, France and Germany.

Thursday’s talks, that have followed a flurry of recent meetings, both at the technical and the political level, between Iran and the sextet — the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany — set the tone for the possibility of an agreement that would steer a process meant to confirm that Iran was not pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. In tandem, it is expected that this would lead to the phased lifting of sanctions against Iran.

Analysts point out that if this difficult and time-consuming exercise succeeds, it would raise hopes of normalisation of ties between Iran and the West — a prospect that has profound geopolitical implications.

“Grievous error”

Unsurprisingly, Israel, Iran’s chief regional rival and top U.S. ally, has slammed the apparent progress in the ongoing dialogue. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the possible deal as a “grievous historic error.” He described the likely agreement both as “the deal of the century” as well as a “very bad deal.”

Known for its reticence in the past, the Iranian delegation in Geneva has surprised many by engaging the media with flair. As part of a string of interviews on Thursday evening, Mr. Zarif, leader of the Iranian delegation, told the website Al Monitor that the talks were hinging on three crucial elements. “We are talking about a framework agreement that includes three steps: objectives, endgame, and a first step.”

Reuters is reporting that talks are hovering over a partial suspension deal that would be valid for a limited period. This would be the first stage in a process that would involve many rounds of negotiations in the next few months, until a permanent agreement is achieved.

During the first stage, it is expected that Iran would be provided access to funds that have been frozen in foreign accounts for years. In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Thursday that the six powers “would consider limited, targeted, and reversible relief that does not affect our core sanctions architecture”.

He added that the broader sanctions regime would be maintained till the time a “final, comprehensive, verifiable” agreement was reached that resolved international concerns.

Observers say that among the confidence building steps, Iran’s interlocutors would be seeking Tehran’s commitment to freeze uranium enrichment at a 20 per cent level, which is closer to 90 per cent purity that is required for the manufacture of an atomic bomb. The West is also apparently fixated in seeking suspension of work on Iran’s heavy water reactor in Arak, which can be used to produce plutonium. The production of plutonium could open up another route that Iran can use to develop atomic explosives.

Mr. Zarif said that significant progress had been achieved during the course of meetings held over last month, including the one last week in Vienna with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to frame the outlines of a deal. “In the course of the past three weeks…the ingredients of each step have been more clearly defined,” said Mr. Zarif. He added that talks were “at the recipe stage”, referring to the reciprocal steps that the six global powers and Iran might have to take, including specific measures that Tehran might have to adopt to restrain its nuclear programme.

A roadmap of confidence building measures is likely to address questions regarding the monitoring or removal of Iran’s existing stockpiles of enriched material, to prevent their diversion towards nuclear weapons.

Aware of the lengthy and tricky negotiations that lay ahead, Abbas Araqchi, Mr. Zarif’s deputy said Geneva would play host to additional rounds of talks between Iran and the sextet in the weeks to come.

Road map

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Iran and the six world powers could agree on a “road map” for ending the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear energy programme.

Speaking to reporters, Mr. Lavrov added that he did not wish to prejudge the outcome of the Geneva talks. He, however, emphasised that Iran should be allowed to have a peaceful nuclear programme under the surveillance of the IAEA.

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