The State Department’s announcement Friday afternoon that Secretary of State John Kerry would travel to Geneva later in the day to join the Iran nuclear talks was the strongest indicator in days that a deal is likely to be reached this weekend.
State Department officials remained cautious about predicting a breakthrough – especially after the roller coaster of the last round of talks earlier this month. Two weeks ago Secretary Kerry dropped everything to fly to Geneva when it appeared to all sides that a deal was all but done – only to have the talks suddenly break off without an agreement over French objections.
A decision by Kerry to return to Geneva this time, where talks have been under way since Wednesday between six world powers and Iran, “would not be a prediction of the outcome,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Friday afternoon before Kerry’s travel was announced.
“It’s certainly possible he would need to roll up his sleeves and go through a document,” Ms. Psaki said.
In her announcement of Kerry’s decision, Psaki said the secretary was going to Geneva “with the goal of continuing to help narrow the differences and move closer to an agreement.”
Still, it seemed unlikely that Kerry would go to Geneva a second time unless he had strong assurances that a deal was, if not done, then very close. Kerry consulted with the European Union’s chief negotiator, Catherine Ashton, who has been leading the talks with the Iranians, and the US negotiating team in Geneva before deciding to travel there.
In Geneva, diplomats from both sides of the table said that differences over the agreement’s text had been narrowed to a few sticking points.
One of those was reported to be the heavy-water reactor Iran is building in Arak – a facility that upon completion would produce plutonium – and the limits that would be put on the project for the six-month period of an interim agreement.
Other reports circulated that agreement had been reached on another potential deal breaker: Iran’s demand that what it sees as its “right” to uranium enrichment be recognized in the document’s opening paragraphs.
Iran affirms it has that “right” by virtue of being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, or NPT. The US maintains the treaty is “silent” on any right to enrichment.
The NPT says signatories have an “inalienable right” to nuclear energy for “peaceful purposes,” but it does not mention a right to enrichment – a process that can produce the fuel needed for a nuclear weapon.
If an interim deal is reached, it would start the clock on what is supposed to be six months of negotiations to find what President Obama says would be a “comprehensive solution” to Iran’s nuclear program. Much of the international community worries that Iran is not far from achieving the ability to build a nuclear weapon.
Proponents of reaching an interim deal, including the White House, say such an agreement would cause Iran to roll back critical portions of its advancing nuclear program while negotiations proceeded on a long-term accord. In return, Iran would receive some of the sanctions relief it has been seeking to alleviate pressure on its hard-hit economy.
Opponents – including Israel and a large number of members of Congress – say Iran would be getting too much in sanctions relief for too little in roll-backs on its nuclear program.
An interim deal would almost certainly be trumpeted with considerable fanfare, not least in Washington. But even before a deal is reached, more than a dozen senators are vowing to join their House colleagues and pass new sanctions on Iran when they return to Washington in December.