A fresh round of talks between Iran and world powers began yesterday in Geneva, amid guarded hopes a deal may finally be possible in the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.
In their second meeting in the Swiss city in less than a month, negotiators from the US and five other world powers were to sit down with Iranian officials for two days in the hopes of hammering out a framework agreement.
Officials have said the contours of the “first step” of a deal are emerging, with world powers offering a limited easing of sanctions in exchange for Iran freezing its most controversial nuclear efforts.
Both sides have said recent talks have been the most productive in years, but admit that reaching a deal will not be easy.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif yesterday said the talks were expected to be “very difficult.”
“We have entered a detailed phase that is still difficult and precise,” Zarif said on his Facebook page.
However, Zarif had sounded an optimistic note earlier this week, saying he believed it would be “possible” to reach an agreement this week.
The meeting is the second since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office in August pledging to resolve the nuclear dispute and lift sanctions by engaging with world powers.
Iran is anxious for relief from crippling economic sanctions that have cut oil revenues in half, caused the value of the rial to plunge and pushed inflation above 40 percent.
The West is also keen to seize a rare opportunity to build bridges with Iran after decades of hostility, opening the door to engaging with Tehran on other issues like the conflict in Syria, where Iran has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the anti-regime insurgents.
Last month’s talks in Geneva — held in English for the first time — saw Iran reportedly outline a two-stage process that would resolve the dispute within a year.
Speaking to journalists in Geneva on the eve of this week’s talks, a senior US official said Washington was willing to offer Iran limited sanctions relief if it agreed to take a “first step” to stop advancing its nuclear program.
“What we’re looking for now is a first phase, a first step, an initial understanding that stops Iran’s nuclear program from moving forward ... and that potentially rolls some of it back,” the official said.
“We are prepared to offer limited, targeted and reversible sanctions relief. We are not talking about touching the core architecture of the Iranian sanctions regime in this first step,” the official said.
The official refused to give details of the offers on the table, but said the first stage would “put time on the clock” to negotiate a final agreement.
World powers are represented at the talks by the so-called P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — plus Germany.
The group has held years of talks with Tehran on its uranium enrichment, which Western powers suspect may be aimed at developing nuclear weapons.
Iran has repeatedly denied this, insisting its nuclear program is only for generating electricity and for medical purposes. The six powers have been pushing Iran to freeze its enrichment efforts, reduce stockpiles and lower its capacity to produce nuclear material. Even if negotiators can reach a deal, both sides will have to overcome deep skepticism among hardliners opposed to any compromise.
Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear power, has staunchly opposed easing sanctions and its supporters in the US Congress could come out against even marginal concessions to Iran.
Ahead of the talks yesterday, Israel urged world powers to reject what it said was an Iranian offer to partly cut back its nuclear program in return for a reduction of sanctions.
“Israel in the last few hours has learned that a proposal will be brought before the P5+1 in Geneva in which Iran will cease all enrichment at 20 percent and slow down work on the heavy water reactor in Arak, and will receive in return the easing of sanctions,” an official said on condition of anonymity.
“Israel thinks this is a bad deal and will oppose it strongly,” the official said.
Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20 percent has been a particular source of concern as it is seen as a key step on the way to the 90 percent level required for a nuclear weapon.