Iranian FM Zarif with Swiss FM in Geneva 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON -- World powers continued their struggle with Iran on Saturday over key details of an interim agreement, and the semantics thereof, that would pause much of the Islamic Republic's controversial nuclear program.
The international community seeks an initial deal with Iran that would arrest the slow-motion nuclear crisis, as Iran's program continues to expand without impediment.
Iran's decision this weekend whether or not to comply with the deal — characterized in recent days by the Israeli government as "very, very bad"
— will determine whether an accord, seen as a "first step" toward a peaceful solution to the decade-old crisis, is achievable.
"We have reached the point of writing and it's difficult because we're insisting on Iran's national interests," said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. "This is why we are paying a great deal of attention to words and phrases that each have their own meanings."
If a deal is not reached, leadership in the United States Senate has planned a vote after the Thanksgiving holiday that would further sanction Iran's oil sector
— already half what it was three years ago.
Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China — sent their chief diplomats to Geneva, where talks were underway for the third time since October, in order to secure the deal.
The "first step" would impose a limit on Iran’s enrichment capabilities and on existing stockpiles of uranium, effectively halting parts of the program that are most worrisome to the international community.
The proposed deal specifically addresses the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade quality, spun in centrifuges to such a degree that the material has no practical civilian purpose.
Diplomats are still wrestling, however, with the amount of enrichment they are willing to tolerate. Iran considers uranium enrichment an inalienable right of all nations.
In exchange for these concessions from Tehran, world powers would provide the Islamic Republic with sanctions relief valued up to $10 billion. The sanctions adjustments are "limited and reversible," says the US government.
In addition to enrichment levels, the second greatest hurdle in the negotiations is Iran's heavy-water plutonium reactor in Arak, which could provide Tehran with a second path to a nuclear warhead. Construction on Arak continues; Western negotiators are attempting to convince Iran to pause construction, and not simply a halt in its fueling once construction is complete.
Once fueled, the Arak reactor would be radioactive and politically immune to a military strike.
The agreement would be in effect for six months, during which time the P5+1 powers would attempt to forge a conclusive, final-status agreement that will end the nuclear impasse.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Saturday that there is a "huge amount of agreement," implying that the negotiations were in their final stage.
But "the remaining gaps are important," Hague cautioned. "They remain very difficult negotiations."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and US Secretary of State John Kerry were keen on establishing clear enforcement and verification procedures in the language of the deal.
Those procedures and mechanisms, according to US sources, are key in delineating between a "good deal" and a "bad" one to Western negotiators.
The US government has said its goal is to "put time on the clock" in order to stave off military conflict between itself with its allies and the Iranian government.
US officials have characterized an alternative strategy popular on Capitol Hill — not to strike an interim deal with Iran, but rather to sanction its government even further — as equivalent to ordering a march to war.
But it has said that the failure to reach a deal in Geneva, or Iran's inability to comply with such a deal if one is ultimately reached, would force the Obama administration to support new sanctions.
Kerry canceled a trip to Israel
earlier in the week in order to clear his schedule for the weekend, expecting his presence would be required in Geneva.
The secretary will fly on from the Swiss city to London to meet with Secretary Hague on Iran, and other matters, including Syria and the Middle East peace process.
The international community has refused to accept Iran's production of fissile material since 2003, when George W. Bush called the Iranian government part of an "axis of evil" for its attempts to build weapons of mass destruction.