With a deadline approaching to resolve a 12-year standoff over Tehran’s atomic ambitions, Iranian officials on Sunday signaled a willingness to come to an agreement, with Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif telling a gathering of the world's top diplomats that "this is the opportunity."
The United States and its five negotiating partners, the other members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, hope to clinch a deal setting long-term limits on Tehran's enrichment of uranium and other activity that could produce material for use in nuclear weapons.
Negotiators have set a June 30 final deadline for a nuclear deal, and Western officials have said they aim to agree on the substance of such an accord by March.
An earlier attempt at closing a nuclear deal by the Nov. 24 deadline in Vienna was derailed when negotiators failed to reach an agreement on the timing and scope of sanctions relief, and the restrictions on uranium enrichment Iran would be forced to accept beyond those of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which it is a signatory. Both parties agreed to extend the negotiations into March, raising fears the delay would increase political opposition to a deal from conservative lawmakers in Washington and Tehran.
The U.S. Congress is mulling measures that would either restore restrictions on Iran’s energy sector or introduce new restrictions. President Barack Obama has promised to veto any bill that places further sanctions on Iran while negotiations continue — a vow he reiterated during his State of the Union address.
“For the first time in a decade,” Obama said during his address, “we’ve halted the progress of its (Iran) nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.”
Following his 90-minute morning meeting on Sunday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Zarif said he felt that progress had been made in the past months and suggested it would be unproductive to further extend negotiations.
"I do not believe another extension is in the interest of anybody," he said. "We're reaching the point where it is quite possible to make an agreement ... and I do not believe anything will be different a year down the road."
The U.S. State Department characterized Sunday's discussion between Zarif and Kerry as "constructive." In their meeting on Friday, Kerry pressed Zarif on the Obama administration's desire to meet in March for the outline of a nuclear agreement.
Iran says its program is solely for energy production and medical research purposes. It has agreed to some restrictions on the country's uranium production in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from U.S. economic sanctions.
From Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all major decisions, said in a statement on his website Sunday he could accept a compromise in nuclear talks and gave his strongest defense yet of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s decision to negotiate with the West.
"I am for reaching a good settlement and the Iranian nation too will certainly not oppose any deal to uphold its dignity and integrity," Khamenei said, an apparent warning to domestic hardliners that they might have to accept a deal with powers including the U.S.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will address the U.S. Congress on Iran on March 3 — to the annoyance of the Obama administration — said he would strive to thwart would be a "bad and dangerous agreement."
"We will do everything to thwart a bad and dangerous deal that will cast a dark cloud on the future of the state of Israel and its security," said Netanyahu during a Sunday cabinet meeting.
Al Jazeera and wire services