GENEVA, Switzerland (CNN) — Western diplomats and Iran appear to be on the verge of a breakthrough agreement on a first step toward curbing international concerns about the Middle Eastern state’s nuclear program.
Intense talks were under way Friday, a spokesman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said.
The emerging deal would ease some sanctions on Iran if it stops enriching uranium to 20% purity — a key step on the path to a nuclear weapon — destroys its existing stockpile and takes other steps, according two senior U.S. administration officials.
Both President Barack Obama and the Iranian foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, Javad Zarif, expressed optimism that a deal could be reached.
And in another sign that agreement could be imminent, top Western diplomats — including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and their British and German counterparts — dropped their Friday plans and traveled to Geneva to participate in the talks.
“There have already been advances but I must express that there are still agreements to be made here,” Fabius said as he went into a meeting with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Geneva. Kerry, on arriving in Geneva, echoed Fabius’ remarks, saying distance remains between the two sides.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is not involved in the talks, warned that the proposed agreement is “the deal of a century for Iran” but a “very dangerous and bad deal for peace.”
“It’s a very bad deal,” he said. “Iran is not required to take apart even one centrifuge. But the international community is relieving sanctions on Iran for the first time after many years. Iran gets everything that it wanted at this stage and pays nothing.”
The sudden progress in meetings between Iran and the group of nations known as the P5+1 or EU3+3 — United States, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany — comes after years of stalemate between Western nations and Iran over its nuclear program.
It also follows a slight thaw in relations between Iran and the West under newly elected president Hassan Rouhani.
Iran has always maintained its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes, despite repeated findings by U.N. weapons inspectors that the country appeared to be conducting nuclear weapons research.
Iran has been under crippling U.N. sanctions related to its nuclear program since 2006. The United States first sanctioned Iran over its nuclear program in 2000.
While acknowledging that sanctions have resulted in hardships for Iranians, Zarif said they have failed to slow Iran’s nuclear program. But he said Iran is ready to deal in exchange for concessions.
“We are at a very sensitive stage of negotiations, and it is best if these negotiations are done at the negotiating table rather than on live television,” Zarif told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “But I can tell you that we are prepared to address some of the most immediate concerns that have been raised, and we expect reciprocally our concerns to be met by the P5+1.”
“I believe it is possible to reach an understanding or an agreement before we close these negotiations (Friday) evening,” Zarif said.
He declined to detail what such an agreement could include.
U.S. officials outline possible deal
Two senior U.S. administration officials said that, under the potential deal, Iran would agree:
— to stop enriching nuclear fuel to 20% purity;
— to render unusable most of its existing stockpile of such fuel;
— to agree not to use advanced IR-2 centrifuges, which can enrich nuclear fuel five times faster than older centrifuges;
— not to activate a plutonium reactor at Arak.
In turn, the P5+1 would agree:
— to unfreeze some Iranian assets held in banks overseas;
— to consider easing sanctions banning trade in gold, precious metals and petrochemicals.
Other sweeteners were also under consideration, they said.
One of the officials said the deal is designed to “stop Iran’s progress by stopping the shortening of time by which they could build a nuclear weapon” while also providing temporary, reversible sanctions relief to Iran.
That official cautioned the deal is not done, but said it could happen if the Iranians agree to the P5+1’s demands.
Most sanctions to stay in place
Speaking to NBC on Thursday, Obama said the United States would retain its “core sanctions” in place against Iran while granting “very modest relief” from economic sanctions.
“So that if it turned out during the course of the six months when we’re trying to resolve some of these bigger issues that they’re backing out of the deal, they’re not following through on it, or they’re not willing to go forward and finish the job of giving us assurances that they’re not developing a nuclear weapon,” Obama told NBC, “we can crank that dial back up.”
Such a deal would be “stunning,” said Jane Harman, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former member of the House Intelligence Committee.
“This is way beyond the initial deal that people speculated about,” she said on CNN’s “New Day” on Friday.
“If this can work, if they can get to this agreement today, I see all kinds of advantages for other issues pending in the Middle East, like Syria,” she said.
Iran’s cooperation could be key to ending the civil war there, she said.
‘Getting to the root of the problem’
The details were hashed out during a bilateral U.S.-Iran meeting — part of an apparent effort on each side to mend fences — which lasted about an hour on the sidelines of broader talks under way in Geneva.
The U.S. delegation was led by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. The Iranian delegation was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi.
“The main issue is getting to the root of the problem, which is the enrichment issue and all things that lead from that,” Michael Mann, spokesman for Ashton, said on the sidelines of negotiations.
Moments later, the Iranian state-run Fars News Agency tweeted a quote from Araqchi: “Enrichment is our red line and its suspension is unacceptable.”
When CNN asked Araqchi about the issue of uranium enrichment, he declined to answer.
“The talks are extremely complex and are now going into a serious phase,” Mann said. “We want to focus on substance and hope there will be concrete progress over the next couple of days.”
Zarif said Iran’s nuclear program would continue in some form.
“There won’t be a suspension of our enrichment program in its entirety,” he said. “But we can deal with various issues. Various issues are on the table.”
Resolutions and sanctions passed by the United Nations in 2006 called on Iran to halt all enrichment activities and clarify that its nuclear facilities were being used for peaceful purposes only.
In its August report, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, estimates that since declaring its nuclear program, Iran has processed 10 metric tons of uranium to 5% purity, the level used for nuclear power plants.
The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that Iran has a stockpile of 410 pounds (185 kilograms) of uranium at 20% purity.
Weapons experts warn that this uranium could be further refined for use in a nuclear warhead.
Although experts suggest that amount would not be enough for a single warhead, the IAEA has warned that it believes Iran’s nuclear program could have “possible military dimensions.”