GENEVA (AP) — Four world powers are dispatching their top diplomats to Geneva on Friday to add their weight to negotiations aimed at putting initial limits on Iran's ability to make atomic weapons.
French, British and German foreign ministers are joining U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva, who will be coming "to help narrow differences in negotiations," according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Negotiators were keeping details of their talks confidential. But Kerry, in comments to Israeli television, suggested Washington was looking for an Iranian commitment to stop any expansion of nuclear activities that could be used to make weapons as a first step. Tehran would be looking for significant relief from sanctions stifling its economy for such a concession.
"We are asking them to step up and provide a complete freeze over where they are today," Kerry said Thursday.
Their decision to fly to Geneva comes after signs that global powers and Iran were close to a first-stage deal that would cap some of Iran's suspected nuclear programs in exchange for limited relief from economic sanctions. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did not plan to attend. There was no word from Beijing on any plans by the Chinese foreign minister to join his colleagues.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the first to arrive, spoke of progress, but told reporters "nothing is hard and fast yet."
"I've come to Geneva to take part in the negotiations because the talks are difficult but important for regional and international security," he said. "We are working to reach an accord which completes the first step to respond to Iran's nuclear program."
There has been no confirmation that an accord is within reach or details of possible elements of such a pact. But Israel is strongly critical of any deal that stops short of totally disabling Iran from making nuclear arms, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he "utterly rejects" the "bad deal" he said was in the making.
He spoke before meeting with Kerry in Jerusalem on Friday. "I understand the Iranians are walking around very satisfied in Geneva as well they should because they got everything and paid nothing," Netanyahu told reporters.
"They wanted relief of sanctions after years of grueling sanctions, they got that. They paid nothing because they are not reducing in any way their nuclear enrichment capability. So Iran got the deal of the century and the international community got a bad deal," Netanyahu said.
"Israel is not obliged by this agreement and Israel will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and defend the security of its people," he said. Israel has frequently dangled the prospect of military action against Iran should negotiations fail to reach the deal it seeks — a total shutdown of uranium enrichment and other nuclear programs Tehran says are peaceful but which could technically be turned toward weapons.
Even if an agreement is reached, it would only be the start of a long process to reduce Iran's potential nuclear threat, with no guarantee of ultimate success.
Still, an initial accord would mark a breakthrough after nearly a decade of mostly inconclusive talks focused on limiting, if not eliminating, Iranian atomic programs that could be turned from producing energy into making weapons.
Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, told Iranian state TV on Thursday that the six — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — "clearly said that they accept the proposed framework by Iran." He later told CNN that he thinks negotiators at the table are now "ready to start drafting" an accord that outlines specific steps to be taken.
Though Araghchi described the negotiations as "very difficult," he told Iranian state TV that he expected agreement on details by Friday, the last scheduled round of the current talks.
The talks are primarily focused on the size and output of Iran's enrichment program, which can create both reactor fuel and weapons-grade material suitable for a nuclear bomb. Iran insists it is pursuing only nuclear energy, medical treatments and research, but the United States and its allies fear that Iran could turn this material into the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
President Barack Obama, in an interview with NBC on Thursday, described any sanctions relief as "modest" but said core sanctions against Iran would remain in place.
"Our job is not to trust the Iranians," Obama said. "Our job is to put in place mechanisms where we can verify what they're doing and not doing when it comes to their nuclear program."
International negotiators representing the six powers declined to comment on Araghchi's statement. Bur White House spokesman Jay Carney elaborated on what the U.S. calls a "first step" of a strategy meant to ultimately contain Iran's ability to use its nuclear program to make weapons.
An initial agreement would "address Iran's most advanced nuclear activities; increase transparency so Iran will not be able to use the cover of talks to advance its program; and create time and space as we negotiate a comprehensive agreement," Carney told reporters in Washington.
The six would consider "limited, targeted and reversible relief that does not affect our core sanctions," he said, alluding to penalties crippling Tehran's oil exports. If Iran reneges, said Carney, "the temporary, modest relief would be terminated, and we would be in a position to ratchet up the pressure even further by adding new sanctions."
He described any temporary, initial relief of sanctions as likely "more financial rather than technical." Diplomats have previously said initial sanction rollbacks could free Iranian funds in overseas accounts and allow trade in gold and petrochemicals.