GENEVA – On the eve of crucial negotiations on Iran’s controversial nuclear program, U.S. and Iranian diplomats expressed hope Wednesday that they will be able reach an initial understanding leading to a comprehensive accord by Friday.
The deal would involve lifting for six months some of the international economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran in exchange for its curbing the enrichment of uranium.
Such a deal would mark a breakthrough in the decadelong dispute over a program that the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China fear is intended to produce a nuclear weapon.
“What we’re looking for now is a first phase, a first step, an initial understanding that stops Iran’s nuclear program for the first time in decades and potentially rolls some of it back,” a senior U.S. official said. The official, a member of the U.S. delegation led by Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, couldn’t be identified under the rules of the briefing.
At the heart of the proposal is the demand that Iran halt the expansion of its ability to enrich uranium, presumably by not buying new centrifuges, the equipment used in the enrichment process. That’s a change from previous demands that Iran stop enriching uranium past a certain purity.
Iran already has produced a sizable stockpile of low-enriched uranium and a more worrisome supply of 200 kilograms – 440 pounds – of uranium enriched to 25 percent purity. Experts say there’s no clear need in Iran’s peaceful nuclear program for the latter amount, and that if Iran decided to, that 25 percent could be enriched quickly to the high-level purity needed to produce a nuclear weapon.
Iran’s new foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said Iran was “prepared to reach an agreement” in the talks this week.
“We are optimistic that we can move forward,” he told France 24, an all-news television channel. Zarif said that while the negotiations were expected to take at least a year to complete, Iran needed to have a sense of the final outcome. He appeared to be referring to Iran’s demand to end the most devastating sanctions, which limit oil sales and international banking relations. The accord under discussion this week, he said, addresses the most immediate concerns of Iran, the U.S. and the five other nations.
“I believe it’s not difficult to reach that agreement,” Zarif said. If the six major powers “are prepared to reach an agreement, then we can have an agreement.”