Secretary of State John Kerry will fly to Geneva on Friday in an effort to help secure a deal on Tehran's nuclear program, a senior State Department official said, a day after Iranian delegates signaled progress in rekindled talks with six world powers.
Kerry would be "committed to doing anything he can to help narrow the difference on the nuclear talks," an official told Reuters — a last-minute decision that suggests a deal could be imminent.
A European Union spokesman in Geneva told Reuters that "very intense work" is ongoing and that "we hope to make progress today."
In a sign of a potential breakthrough, the French, German and British foreign ministers have said they will join the talks in Geneva Friday. Their Russian counterpart said he sees positive changes and hopes for a "concrete result" to end the nuclear dispute with Iran, Reuters reported.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator said the P5+1 countries had accepted Tehran's proposals on Thursday on how to proceed. The deal would cap some of Iran’s atomic programs in exchange for limited relief from sanctions stifling the country's economy.
If an initial agreement is reached, it would be only the start of a long process to reduce Iran's potential nuclear threat, with no guarantee of ultimate success. The core of that first stage would be freeing up cash that has been frozen in foreign accounts for years, giving Iran access to funds.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Reuters this deal buries the "possibility of having a peaceful resolution" to the nuclear dispute.
"Israel is not obliged by this agreement, and Israel will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and the security of its people," Netanyahu told reporters before meeting Kerry in Jerusalem.
Still, a limited 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 to making weapons.
Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, told Iranian state TV that the P5+1 countries — 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 upbeat comments suggested that negotiators in Geneva are moving from broad discussions on a nuclear deal to details meant to limit Tehran's ability to make atomic weapons. In return, Iran would start getting relief from sanctions that have hit its economy hard.
U.S. officials said Kerry would travel to the Geneva talks after a brief stop in Israel for a third meeting with Netanyahu, who has spoken out against any limited deal that would allow the Iranians sanctions relief.
In Geneva, Kerry is expected to meet with the European Union's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the schedule.
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. 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.
International negotiators representing the P5+1 powers declined to comment on Araghchi's statement. But 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," he told reporters in Washington.
The P5+1 would consider "limited, targeted and reversible relief that does not affect our core sanctions," he said, referring 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 initial sanctions relief as likely "more financial rather than technical." Diplomats previously said initial rollbacks could free Iranian funds in overseas accounts and allow trade in gold and petrochemicals.
The last round of talks three weeks ago reached agreement on a framework of possible discussion points, and the two sides kicked off Thursday's round focused on getting to that first step.
Thursday's meeting ended about an hour after it began, followed by bilateral meetings, including one between the U.S and Iranian delegations. E.U. spokesman Michael Mann said the talks were "making progress."
After nearly a decade of deadlock, Iran seems more amenable to making concessions. Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, has indicated he could cut back on the nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press