Centrifuge R&D seen as holdup in implementing Iran nuclear deal

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Differing interpretations over whether Iran can conduct research on more advanced centrifuges under a nuclear deal signed last month is among the key issues to be resolved for the agreement to enter into force, nonproliferation experts suggested Sunday.

Technical experts from Iran and six world powers are scheduled to resume talks on implementing the Joint Plan of Action in Geneva on Monday, December 30th.

“What may be happening here is that Iran has notified the P5+1 that it plans to install additional IR-2M centrifuges at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Facility at Natanz where it has historically conducted centrifuge research and development,” Jofi Joseph, a former US official who worked on Iran nuclear issues, told Al-Monitor.

“Throughout the diplomatic talks that culminated in the Geneva agreement, Iran has insisted upon the right to continue unfettered research and development for its centrifuge program that should fall outside any limits on its centrifuges producing enriched uranium,” said Joseph, who recently wrote about potential pitfalls to the Nov. 24 interim Iran nuclear deal at the Atlantic Council website. “The P5+1 always pushed back, seeking to protect against a scenario where Iran could use this R&D loophole as a back door to expand its centrifuge capacity even as a [confidence building measure] CBM agreement took effect.”

The Joint Plan of Action, signed by Iran and the P5+1 November 24th, states that: “Iran will continue its safeguarded R&D practices, including its current enrichment R&D practices, which are not designed for accumulation of the enriched uranium.”

“The P5+1 likely interprets this language to mean that Iran will not expand the level, scope,or sophistication of its centrifuge R&D beyond existing practice,” Joseph suggested. “While Iran probably takes a more expansive view, arguing instead that, so long as it not expanding the numbers or types of centrifuges in the production-related areas of Natanz or Fordow, it remains in compliance with the Geneva agreement.”

Iranian negotiators did not respond to a query from Al-Monitor Saturday if that was the main issue holding up the JPA entering into force. But Iranian officials seemed to allude to the matter in comments to Iranian news media this week. “A new generation of centrifuges is being built, but they should undergo all tests before mass production,” Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and MIT-educated former Iranian foreign minister, was cited by Iranian news media as saying Sunday.

“The negotiations are proceeding slowly as there are misunderstandings over interpretation of some elements of the accord,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister and deputy nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi told Mehr News Agency, the AFP reported Sunday, adding that “ff expert-level talks are fruitful, a date [for implementing the deal] will be decided, which I guess will be at the end of January.”

The parties should be able to resolve such ambiguities and differences to make way for the JPA entering into force, nonproliferation expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Al-Monitor in an interview Sunday.  “This is not a technical problem,” Hibbs said. “There’s a huge amount of documentation – reams and reams and reams of technical discussion between Iran and the US, [on] how to do this….[there are] lots of ways of skinning the cat.”

Negotiators in Geneva last fall, led by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, made the deal in a hurry. “Now what they need to do is nail down all the technical details,” Hibbs said. “What needs to happen [to] close on some of this stuff is just very complicated…for example, verification procedures…questions about what specific piping they have to inspect, who gets access, all these things.”

“The real problem is not that there cannot be a technical solution. Because there can,” Hibbs said. “The real problem is [that] the absence of closure on technical details [could] reignite all of the latent lack of trust.”

But he did not think the parties would let the agreement break down. The Obama administration sees the agreement as “confidence-building; there’s a premium on deal-making,” Hiibbs said. “And the Iranians, like anyone else, want to get the best deal they can.”

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations Palais in Geneva November 24, 2013. Credit: REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool.)

Kerry, Zarif discuss way forward on Iran nuclear deal

20131124-060420.jpgUS Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Saturday about how to move forward on implementing the Iran nuclear deal, US and Iranian officials said Monday.

Kerry called Zarif from his flight from Israel to Vietnam Saturday, a senior State Department official said Monday, after the conversation was alluded to by Zarif in an interview with the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and subsequently confirmed by the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

Kerry and Zarif “discussed the importance of moving forward on implementation of the Joint Plan of Action they agreed to in Geneva and of maintaining a constructive atmosphere as the negotiations continue,” the senior State Department official said. “The conversation was focused on the way forward.”

“I’ve been in contact with American officials as well as other 5+1 officials, as well as [European Union chief diplomat] Cathy Ashton,” Zarif told Ignatius. “And everybody is trying to seek possibilities to move forward.”

“What I have heard from Secretary Kerry and Lady Ashton is that they are committed to an early finalization of the Geneva process with a view to reaching a comprehensive agreement,” Zarif said. “I share that objective. I’m sure that we will hit other obstacles on our way.”

Asked by Ignatius if he was alluding to recent conversations, Zarif responded: “Well, we’ve never stopped communicating, and conversations have taken place.”

Separately, European Union foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels Monday, agreed to suspend the EU sanctions on Iran spelled out in the Joint Pian of Action after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified Iran’s implementation of certain measures, a statement from the European Council said. Continue reading

Breaking: Iran nuclear deal reached

20131124-060420.jpgGeneva_ Six major powers and Iran have reached a nuclear agreement that will be signed here tonight, diplomats announced here tonight.

“We have reached agreement between E3+3 and Iran,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced on Twitter at 3AM.

“We have reached an agreement,” Iranian Foreign Ministef Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter.

“Deal,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said by email.

Zarif and Ashton as well as US Secretary of State John Kerry and other P5+1 foreign ministers headed to the Palais des Nations to the sign the nuclear accord, at approximately 4AM.

20131124-041601.jpg President Obama was expected to give a statement from the White House on the Iran nuclear deal reached at 10:15PM ET. He was reportedly involved in the negotiations today via conference call, according to White House photographer Pete Souza (photo at right.)

The two phase agreement (see the State Department fact sheet on it, below the jump) would halt the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program for six months, during which time the parties aim to reach a comprehensive agreement.

“The fact is, if this first step leads to what is our ultimate goal, a comprehensive agreement, that will make the world safer,” Kerry said at a press conference in Geneva at 5am. “This first step actually rolls back the Iran nuclear program today, and enlarges its breakout time. It will make our partners safer, it will make our ally Israel safer.”

“The deal: halts progress of nuclear program including arak, neutralize 20 percent stockpile, intrusive inspections; has no recognition of right to enrich; sanctions still enforced,” a senior US administration official said.

It has already drawn fierce opposition from Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel has objected to even minimal sanctions relief for concessions short of a full dismantling of Iran’s military nuclear program, including its domestic enrichment.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was thought to cause an upset at a previous round of nuclear talks here this month, gave journalists a thumbs up as he departed the Intercontinental Hotel tonight, where the past five days of talks have mostly taken place.

(Photo of US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after they and the P5+1 signed an Iran nuclear deal at the Palais des Nations In Geneva November 24, 2013. By Reuters/Denis Balibouse.)

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Kerry, foreign ministers to join talks to close Iran nuclear deal

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Geneva_ World powers and Iran seemed to be closing in on a deal as US Secretary of State John Kerry and other P5+1 foreign ministers said they would join talks in Geneva on Saturday.

“In light of the progress being made – and the progress that Lady Ashton and team are working very hard to achieve tonight – Secretary Kerry decided to travel to Geneva to join his ministerial colleagues tomorrow,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said Friday. “After talking to Lady Ashton and our negotiating team on the ground, he made the decision to travel here with the hope that an agreement will be reached.”

Kerry’s travel plans were announced after the arrival here Friday evening of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. UK, French and German foreign ministers also announced plans to come Saturday. China’s vice foreign minister has been here all week, and its foreign minister was reportedly also heading to Geneva.

Talks ran til almost 2am Saturday, on the third day of the third round of high level Iran nuclear talks here in Geneva in the past five weeks.

“So we’re close, but the end of a negotiation is always tough,” a US official told al-Monitor late Friday. “Because if it was easy, it would already be resolved.”

European Union foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton and her team have been running point between the Iranians and the P5+1 over the past couple days, to try to keep the process at this sensitive stage as coordinated as possible, with so many parties involved.

Kerry and European foreign ministers were expected to arrive here Saturday morning, when talks will resume.

Gaps narrowing as Iran nuclear talks continue

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Geneva __ A second day of high level of nuclear talks broke for the night here Thursday with Iranian and western negotiators saying progress was being being made in narrowing gaps, but four or five issues still remain to be resolved and need more time. Talks are set to continue here Friday and are very likely to extend into the weekend.

A day “of intense, substantial and detailed negotiations on Iran nuclear programme, conducted in good atmosphere,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said Thursday. “Talks continue tomorrow.”

There are fewer and fewer gaps between the two sides, “the process is efficient, we have a very deep treatment” of the issues, a senior European diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said Thursday of the days’ discussions.

“Some big obstacles [to an accord] have been removed, but not all of them,” the European diplomat said. There are still about four to five elements on the table for negotiation, he said, most of them pertaining to the first phase of the agreement, which is intended to halt the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program over the course of six months while a comprehensive agreement is negotiated.

There is “no rupture with the Iranians, but it doesn’t mean agreement tomorrow,” the European diplomat said. “There is a feeling something could happen tomorrow, or after tomorrow,” but there’s no guarantee, he said. If an accord is reached over the next day, P5+1 foreign ministers could possibly come on Saturday.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, speaking to Iranian media after the talks Thursday, said negotiations on differences in the text of a draft nuclear accord continue. Given that some of the P5+1 delegations “are to consult with their respective capitals and considering time differences, it may last until morning, so there would be no [further] meeting for tonight,” the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.

Among the issues to be resolved concerns language in the text on enrichment, an analyst briefed by negotiators told Al-Monitor. Specifically, he understood, language in the P5+1 proposal given to Iran at the end of the last meeting November 9th would permanently limit Iran’s enrichment, and would never let Iran be treated as a normal member of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the analyst understood.

Another issue is thought to be a demand on the Arak facility, an issue the Iranians told the P5+1 at the Nov. 9 meeting would not be acceptable, and which remains so now, at least without additional sanctions relief, the analyst said.

The Iranians pressed to break for the evening Thursday under the apparent impression that the Americans, who have been consulting with Washington, may be getting further guidance or instructions, the analyst said.

The chemistry and conversations with the Americans are positive, but on some issues we are still far apart, an Iranian negotiator described to the analyst.

A member of the American negotiating team, according to another analyst here, on Thursday described this round of negotiations with the Iranians as fascinating, fun, and ‘we’re close.’

Deal could double Iran breakout time: ex-US official

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Washington, D.C.__ A former senior Obama Administration official told the House Foreign Affairs Committee today that the deal proposed to Iran by the P5+1 countries in Geneva last weekend would “double Iran’s breakout time.”

“That means it would take Iran twice as long” to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl told the committee. “That is meaningful. The deal puts firm restrictions on Iran building fuel assemblies for the Arak fuel reactor.” It would “increase the inspections regime. [It] serves US and Israeli interests.”

Kahl testified that under the deal presented by six world powers to Iran at the end of a three day meeting in Geneva last weekend, Iran would suspend 20% enrichment, neutralize its 20% stockpile, refrain from building fuel assemblies at the Arak reactor and from installing new centrifuges, allow more inspections of nuclear facilities, as well as restrict the growth of its 3.5% stockpile.

In return for Iran suspending those activities for 6 months as part of the first phase of a two-part deal, Iran would receive under $10 billion in sanctions relief, including on the auto, gold and petrochemical industries, and access to approximately $3 billion in hard currency assets frozen in banks abroad.

The sanctions relief envisaged in the first phase of the deal involves “nothing permanent if the Iranians reverse course,” Kahl, now associate professor at Georgetown University, said. “Nothing [in it] guts the oil and banking sanctions,” which would be subject to reaching a comprehensive agreement that the parties aim to negotiate during the six month first phase.

“The bigger risk is to escalate the sanctions at a sensitive moment of diplomacy and watch diplomacy careening off the cliff,” Kahl warned.

An Israeli official said Wednesday, however, that the Israeli government assessed that the measures proposed in the phase 1 deal would lengthen Iran’s breakout time by only a few weeks, and would potentially offer Iran many billions of dollars more in sanctions relief.

But an analysis by former weapons inspector David Albright shared with Kahl calculated that removing Iran’s 20% enriched uranium increases the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons grade uranium for one weapon from 1.3-2.3 months to 3.1-3.5 months, Kahl said.

The House Iran hearing came as the Obama administration mounted a full court press to lobby Congress against moving new Iran sanctions legislation now as negotiations with Iran make headway.

American, European and Iranian negotiators said significant progress was made at three days of talks in Geneva November 9-11th, but it would take at least another meeting to close an agreement. A new meeting between the P5+1 and Iran, at the political director level, is scheduled for next week, November 21-22.

Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with members of the Senate Banking committee behind closed doors Wednesday to press for a delay in legislation under consideration by the panel to tighten loopholes in existing Iran sanctions.

Advocates of increasing the sanctions now say they would increase western negotiators’ leverage and keep psychological pressure on Iran’s leadership, as well as deter foreign companies looking for a wink to resume business with Iran. But US negotiators insist new sanctions now, when Iran is trying to negotiate a deal, would backfire, and risk Iran retreating from the policy of engagement promoted by the new Hassan Rouhani administration and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

New sanctions now could “wind up setting us back in dialogue that has taken 30 years to be able to achieve,” Kerry said as he arrived at the Senate Banking committee Wednesday. “What we are asking everybody to do, is calm down. Look hard at what can be achieved, what the realities are.”

Western officials say that the six powers achieved consensus on a draft proposal that was presented to Iran’s Zarif only in the last hours of the meeting in Geneva. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius raised objections to the text Kerry had been negotiating with Zarif at a meeting hosted by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Geneva Friday.

Though US President Obama and French President Francois Hollande, in a phone call Wednesday, stressed their joint support for the unified P5+1 proposal,
French ambassador to Israel Patrick Maisonneuve told a press conference in Tel Aviv Wednesday that “all of the world powers that negotiated with Iran in Geneva fell in line with the French position,” Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reported.

American diplomats–excited about the first sustained, direct US-Iran negotiations in thirty years, and concerned about opposition to a deal from Congress, Israel and Sunni Gulf allies–may have underestimated the ambivalence and even resentment some P5+1 partners may have felt about the five hour Kerry-Zarif-Ashton meeting on a draft accord in Geneva Friday in which other P5+1 powers were not included. Some European allies, led by France, may have sought to slow down what they saw as an overly hasty deal, some sources suggested.

“We are negotiating for more than 10 years,” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “I think this complex, sensitive question can afford ten more days of negotiations.”

“We made fantastic progress in Geneva,” he added. “We are not far from an agreement.”

Progress, but no deal yet, as Iran talks conclude

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Geneva__ Talks between Iran and six world powers made progress in narrowing differences but did not yield an agreement, despite raised hopes after US Secretary of State John Kerry and other P5+1 foreign ministers flew in over the past two days, in seeming anticipation of a breakthrough.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at a first-ever joint press conference at the conclusion of talks, put an upbeat spin on the past three days’ proceedings, saying significant progress had been made and announcing they would meet again in Geneva on Nov. 20-21, this time at the political director level.

But France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius preempted their press conference, breaking protocol to announce, ahead of Ashton, that they had not reached an agreement.

Earlier Saturday, Fabius announced that he did not accept the draft nuclear accord, abandoning the usual efforts by the P5+1 to project unity and keep details of their internal discussions and disagreements behind closed doors.

“There is an initial text that we do not accept,” Fabius told France’s Inter radio Saturday morning, according to a translation provided by a French reporter here. “There are several points that we are not satisfied with.. If those questions will no be addressed it will not be possible [to reach agreement]. I want a deal but we have to be careful not to be played for fools.”

France’s concerns were reported to center on wanting Iran to halt work on the Arak heavy water facility during the negotiations, as well as on Iran’s stockpile of 20% uranium.

Kerry, speaking after the talks early Sunday, did not explain why a deal couldn’t be closed here, but said he thought an agreement is within reach.

“We came to Geneva to narrow differences, and I can tell you without any exaggeration we not only narrowed differences and clarified those that remain, but we made significant progress,” Kerry said at a press conference after the talks. “There’s no question in my mind that we are closer now, as we leave Geneva, than we were when we came, and that with good work and good faith over the course of the next weeks, we can in fact secure our goal.”

He said the negotiations had been “conducted with mutual respect, in a very serious and civil way.”

Kerry did not mention his unprecedented over eight hours of meetings with Iran’s Zarif over the past two days. But there were signs of a growing sense of ease and normalcy to US-Iran interactions at the talks that did not exist before he and Zarif met on the sidelines of the UN in New York in September.

Iranian diplomats said the meetings between Zarif, Kerry, and Ashton and their top deputies had been good and productive, and expressed optimism about prospects to finalize a nuclear accord in the upcoming weeks.

“I think it was natural, when we start dealing with the details, that there will be differences in views,” Zarif, speaking in English, said at the press conference with Ashton. “I am not disappointed at all, it was a good meeting.”

Western diplomats did not deny frustration over Fabius’ behavior at the talks, but did not disparage the concerns he raised, but rather that he raised them publicly–thus giving the impression that it was the western powers that were divided over the text, and doing so in a way that diminished prospects for a deal here.

France believes that Iran should halt construction of the Arak heavy water reactor during the first phase of a nuclear agreement, which is envisioned to last for six months, during which a comprehensive deal would, in theory, be hammered out. Some other powers believe that Arak could be part of an end state deal, since it is not due to come on line until late 2014.

A former western diplomat said over the past year, France’s political director Jacques Audibert “has repeatedly assured the U.S. side that, if there is a deal in the offing, the French will not stand in the way, their hard-line posturing in past months notwithstanding,” he said, calling it “very surprising…the French are the holdup at this moment.”

But western diplomats privately did not dispute the basic narrative that was the case, and their disappointment.

Kerry, asked at the press conference if the P5+1 had been blindsided by the French position here, answered indirectly, saying the delegations had arrived with a draft document that had some bracketed text that the parties expected to further negotiate on here.

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Diplomat says P5+1 divided over draft Iran accord

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Geneva__ Iran and world powers were supposed to resume ministerial level talks here Saturday morning but the western powers in the P5+1 are divided and were meeting among themselves, a senior diplomat involved in the talks told al-Monitor in an interview Saturday.

“It is obvious, there are serious differences” among the P5+1, the senior diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said. “We were supposed to restart negotiations at 8:30am, but the western side is divided.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry was supposed to resume meetings with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Saturday morning after a five hour meeting Friday that diplomats described as productive. But instead, the State Department said Saturday that Kerry would first meet with Ashton and three European counterparts, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Ashton was then scheduled to meet with Fabius and Zarif.

“In fact, the French are the big upset in the way of an agreement,” the senior diplomat said, on condition his name or nationality not be named.

He said there is a joint P5+1 draft text of a framework agreement the parties have been working on. Good progress was being made, including in the five hour trilateral meeting between Kerry, Zarif and Ashton Friday.

But the French say it is not our text, the diplomat said, a point which Fabius himself subsequently confirmed.

“There is an initial text that we do not accept,” Fabius told France’s Inter radio Saturday morning, according to a translation provided by a French reporter here. “There are several points that we are not satisfied with,” concerning the Arak heavy water facility and Iran’s stockpiles of 20% uranium. “How can we go down to 5% enrichment that is less dangerous. If those questions will no be addressed it will not be possible [to reach agreement]. I wants a deal but we have to be careful not to be played for fools.”

“The question of the Iranian nuclear issue is very important for international security,” Fabius told journalists here Saturday after leaving a meeting with Ashton, Kerry and his European counterparts. “But there are still the important points on which we have to work. I still hope there will be an agreement, but there are still things we have to” resolve.

France’s concerns were reported to center on wanting Iran to halt work on the Arak heavy water facility during the negotiations, as well as on Iran’s stockpile of 20% uranium.

Another P5+1 diplomat told Al-Monitor Saturday that no one is telling the diplomats here what is going on, describing the situation as ‘outrageous.’

Asked about the complaints of a chaotic situation, a spokesperson for Ashton said all of the parties here are working very hard and are making progress.

“The E3+3 continues to work together intensively to make progress on the Iranian nuclear file,” Michael Mann said. “There are a number of meetings going on. And regular debriefings. ”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived here Saturday around 11am to join the talks. He decided to come only late Friday, concerned about an unspecified hitch that had developed in the talks in the afternoon, another diplomat said late Friday.

The Chinese foreign minister is also expected to arrive later Saturday afternoon, reports citing Chinese state radio said.

After talks with Kerry and the Europeans Saturday morning, Kerry, Zarif and Ashton were to resume trilateral talks. It’s still unclear if an agreement will be reached here at this meeting which has extended into a third day, or if talks to sign a possible framework deal will require a subsequent meeting or meetings.

(Photo of US Secretary of State John Kerry, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and his deputies Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht-Ravanchi, by Fars News. Also pictured, US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and nonproliferation James Timbie; and Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid.)

Kerry and Iran’s Zarif meet on nuclear accord, as talks extended

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Geneva __ Talks on a prospective Iran nuclear accord will be extended for at least a third day after US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met here for almost five hours Friday with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The negotiations were productive, but there is much work still to be done, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi said as his delegation returned to the diplomats’ hotel just before midnight after the meeting.

There are only a few issues outstanding, but they are significant, another member of the Iranian delegation said.

Neither Kerry nor Ashton said anything upon their return from the meeting.

Talks are set to continue here on Saturday at 8:30am, Iranian diplomats said.

It’s unclear if a formal agreement will be signed here this weekend, but there was still some sense of expectation that it could happen, as well as signs that progress was being made on the substance of a prospective deal, for the first time in years.

“I want to emphasize there is not an agreement at this point in time, but the P51 is working hard,” Kerry said upon his arrival in Geneva Friday. “We hope to try to narrow those differences, but I don’t think anybody should mistake that there are some important gaps that have to be closed.”

As talks appeared to be making rapid progress Thursday, Kerry decided to fly here from Israel, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vehemently denounced the prospective deal as a historical mistake that would reward Iran for making few concessions. US President Obama called Netanyahu Friday to reiterate his commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, as well as his preference to try to peacefully resolve the issue.

Foreign Ministers from France, Britain and Germany also flew to Geneva Friday, and held consultations with Ashton, before she hosted the five-hour trilateral meeting with Kerry, Zarif and their teams at the EU mission here. Political directors from the six powers seemed to be holding simultaneous meetings back at the hotel.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov decided only late Friday that he should come–apparently related to a crisis or roadblock in the talks that came up in thr afternoon, a diplomat said –and is expected to arrive in Geneva Saturday morning. The diplomat indicated that there are intense negotiations underway on the draft text of a prospective accord, involving parties submitting amendments and revisions. In Russia’s opinion, he said, some sides–he implied the U.S.–were making mistakes, which he declined to clarify.

China’s deputy foreign minister is also expected to arrive here Saturday, reports said. “We are working very hard,” a member of China’s negotiating team said Friday.

Iranian and western diplomats have said they hope to reach a framework accord that would seek to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program in two phases. In the first phase, Iran would agree to suspend certain of its nuclear activities–such as 20% enrichment and the installation of more centrifuges–and accept more verification and monitoring, probably for six months, in exchange for limited sanctions relief. By halting the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program, a senior US administration official explained in a background briefing on the eve of talks Wednesday, that would give time and space for the P5+1 and Iran to try to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement that could constrain Iran’s enrichment program and implement mechanisms to verify that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons, in exchange for the lifting of major oil and banking sanctions.

But Iran has made clear that recognition of what it sees as its right as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty to domestically enrich nuclear fuel be part of any end state deal, while some western powers hesitate to grant Iran such upfront permission. Thus working out a framework agreement that seeks to lay out both a first step and end state deal at the same time is complex, even among negotiators of good will.

Separately, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced Friday that IAEA director general Yukiya Amano will travel to Iran on Monday (Nov. 11), his first visit in over two years.

Kerry is likely to stay in Geneva until Sunday, officials suggested. He will then travel to Abu Dhabi, before returning to the United States, but has had to cancel previously planned stops in Algeria and Morocco, the State Department said.

US sees 2-phase Iran nuclear deal

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Geneva__ The United States and five world powers are looking to reach agreement on the first phase of a two-part nuclear deal with Iran, that would halt the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program while negotiations on a comprehensive final deal take place, a senior US official said here Wednesday.

“The first step understanding would put time on the clock to negotiate a final agreement that addresses all of our concerns,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists here Wednesday on the eve of two days of nuclear talks. “It’s crucial we have this phase of this agreement without Iran’s nuclear program marching forward.”

The US official argued forcefully against Congress implementing new sanctions at this time, saying US experts believe new sanctions “would be harmful to…and undermine” the negotiating process. “We all have an obligation not to take that risk.”

“For the first time, Iran appears to be committed to moving this negotiating process forward quickly,” the official added. “That’s a key shift… For the first time, we do not see them using the negotiating process to buy time.”

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking in Paris Tuesday, said there was still a lot of work to be done, but saw the potential to at least make meaningful progress at the Geneva talks–the second such round in three weeks.

“I believe it is even possible to reach that agreement this week,” Zarif told France24 Tuesday, adding that If “we don’t make a breakthrough at this round, it’s not a disaster.”

“We hope to make concrete progress in the upcoming round,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said here Wednesday. “The nuclear talks are complex and have entered a serious phase.”

The American official declined to go into specifics on the elements of a prospective phase one agreement, but said it should address levels of enrichment, stockpiles, facilities, verification and monitoring. US officials have said the six will not dismantle the “architecture” of major oil and banking sanctions in the interim step, but presumably in a broader end state deal.

“In response to a first step that halts their program, we are prepared to offer limited, targeted and reversible sanctions relief,” the U.S. official said. “We are not talking about removing the core architecture [of the sanctions regime] in the first step. And if Iran does not live up to its agreement, or a comprehensive deal is not finalized, any economic relief offered can be reversed.”

Any interim deal would likely include Iran suspending 20% enrichment. Other possible elements include halting the installation of more centrifuges, and suspending work towards bringing online the Arak heavy water reactor, in exchange for “targeted and reversible” sanctions relief, including the release of some frozen Iranian hard currency assets held in banks abroad, unconfirmed reports have suggested.

Regarding Iran’s demand that it get recognition of the right to enrich in any end state deal, the US official didn’t rule out a deal that permitted Iran to have domestic enrichment, but said the US doesn’t recognize any country’s inherent right to enrich. President Obama has repeatedly expressed support for Iran having a peaceful civilian nuclear energy program.

The US official wouldn’t say whether she expected a first step agreement to be reached at this round of talks in Geneva Nov. 7-8th, but suggested the outline of the first step of a deal may be within reach.

“I do see the potential outlines of a first step,” the official said. “I do think it can be written on a piece of paper–probably more than one. I hope sooner rather than later. I would like to stop Iran’s program from advancing further.”