Iran is offering to hold off from expanding its uranium-enrichment program for about seven years in negotiations with six world powers, Tehran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said in remarks published by The New York Times Tuesday.
Zarif outlined the offer as negotiators were struggling in Vienna to reach a deal by a Sunday deadline that would curb Iran's nuclear program, end sanctions targeting the country and ultimately repair its relations with the world.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed the idea that Iran could maintain its current number of nuclear enrichment centrifuges as part of a long-term deal with six world powers that would lead to a gradual end of sanctions.
"We have made it crystal clear that the 19,000 (centrifuges) that are currently part of their program is too many," Kerry told reporters after three days of talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
"We've made progress", Kerry said, though he cautioned "it is clear that we still have more work to do" before a July 20 deadline to reach a deal. He said he will return to Washington and consult with President Barack Obama and Congress on prospects for a deal with Iran and what to it cannot be reached.
The size of Iran's uranium-enrichment program is one of the key elements of the deal, on which negotiators have made little headway, diplomats have said.
"I'm not here to present maximalist positions," Zarif said on the sidelines of talks with his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry. "I can try to work out an agreement where we would maintain our current levels."
Iran is currently spinning about 10,000 centrifuges at high speeds to purify uranium to levels suitable for use in power reactors. An additional 9,000 centrifuges are installed but not operating.
"The suggestion is on the table," a Western diplomat said, referring to Zarif's proposal.
But he added that the offer was only one of several proposals to limit Tehran's enrichment capability, which is being discussed between Iran and the group of Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany.
The sextet is seeking to prevent Iran from amassing uranium that could be further processed into nuclear weapons material.
A senior U.S. administration official said last week that the current enrichment program had to be significantly reduced for a number of years in the "double digits."
However, Zarif said the limitations should apply only for about seven years.
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