BEIRUT — U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived in Geneva on Friday amid indications of a possible breakthrough in talks on Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
Reports from the Swiss city indicated that the contours of a historic interim agreement between the Iranians and six world powers could be in the making, signaling possible progress after years of dispute about Tehran’s nuclear efforts. But Kerry told reporters that no final agreement had been reached and important issues remained unresolved.
The prospect drew immediate denunciations from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told reporters in Jerusalem that the possible agreement was a “bad deal” and “the deal of the century” for Iran, Israel’s regional arch-enemy.
No official details were available about the possible accord. But reports indicated that it would involve Iran agreeing to limit the scope of its nuclear program and acceding to enhanced international inspections in exchange for some relief from international sanctions that have helped cripple Iran’s economy.
In an interview Thursday with NBC News, President Obama spoke of a “phased agreement” in which advances in Iran’s nuclear program would be halted in exchange for “some very modest relief” in sanctions. That first step would lead to a six-month period to resolve the “bigger issues,” Obama said, while “core sanctions” targeting Iran's economy remained in place.
It was not clear if Iran would agree to any reduction or suspension of uranium enrichment, a critical step toward development of nuclear weapons. The enrichment issue has long been a key sticking point.
Tehran has insisted it will not relinquish what it calls its right to nuclear enrichment, which the Iranians say they are pursuing for peaceful purposes such as generating power. But U.S. and Israeli officials suspect a covert bid to produce atomic weapons.
Both sides have described the negotiations as confidence-building sessions meant in part to dispel decades of distrust between Iran and the West, especially the United States.
The latest round of talks kicked off Thursday between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany. Reports have indicated the talks in Geneva may extend into Saturday.
Kerry, who had been on a diplomatic mission in the Middle East, was joining other foreign ministers in Geneva, including the top diplomats from Iran, Britain, Germany and France. The presence of such high-level representatives, and Kerry’s arrival, fueled speculation that a deal was imminent.
Iranian media described a mood of cautious optimism, even among hard-liners leery of nuclear compromise and any warming of relations with the United States. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN that it was possible to “reach an understanding for an agreement” before the current round of negotiations ends.
Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has made easing international sanctions and improving the economy a cornerstone of his administration. Rouhani has made conciliatory gestures toward the West and spoke by telephone with Obama in September, the highest-level contact between the two nations in more than three decades.
[Updated at 7:17 a.m. PST, Nov. 8: Harsh criticism from Israel for the prospective deal signaled that it could heighten tensions between Israel and the Obama administration.
"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 in Jerusalem. "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."]
Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Beirut and special correspondent Mostaghim from Tehran.
al correspondent Mostaghim from Tehran.