Kerry and Netanyahu
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013. Photo by AP
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AFP
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on November 7, 2013 before the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks in Geneva. Photo by AFP

GENEVA - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a conference in Jerusalem on Thursday that Israel completely rejects the proposal being discussed with Iran vis-à-vis its nuclear program in Geneva. "It will be a historic mistake,"' he said.

A U.S. official in Geneva said Wednesday that the powers want Iran to halt its nuclear program for six months in exchange for temporary sanctions relief.

Netanyahu said that the compromise would be the "deal of the century" for Iran, as it will allow Tehran to continue developing its nuclear program. "The Geneva proposals are weakening the pressure on Iran. Iran's concessions are non-concessions," he said.

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his deputy, Abbas Araghchi, told Iranian press that the drafting of an agreement between the Islamic Republic and the six powers might start as early as Thursday or Friday.

Earlier Thursday, Araghchi said that stopping the enrichment of uranium was a red line that his country would not cross.

Speaking in Geneva during a two-day round of nuclear talks, Araghchi said both sides agree there is an historic opportunity for Iran and the six world powers to reach an agreement, and that this would involve each side taking the first step together.

He also told Iranian reporters that a "breakthrough" was likely to take place in the foreign minister's evening meeting with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. “We are willing to reach a deal in this series of talks," he was quoted by Iran's official news agency, IRNA, as saying.

The country's foreign minister said that while Iran is making progress, the discussions are not easy.

"The talks went well," Zarif said after the first session of the latest two-day round of nuclear talks between Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. "We are beginning to get to more detailed discussions this afternoon. I'm hopeful that we can move forward."

"We are making progress but it's tough," he said.

Speaking after morning talks between the Iranians and the world powers, Ashton's spokesman Michal Mann said the EU came to the talks with a serious intention to make concrete progress, and hoped the Iranians had come with the same attitude. Concerning the Israeli opposition to relieving sanctions on Iran, he said that the negotiations sought a verifiable agreement that was good for everyone, and added that the Iranians would need to provide reassurance on the peaceful nature of its nuclear program.

Earlier that day, Zarif had said that a preliminary agreement is possible at the two-day round of talks “if all parties do their best.”

Before speaking to reporters, Zarif met with Ashton, who is leading the talks on behalf of six world powers. Ashton’s spokesman said the meeting with Zarif went well and dealt with preparations for the negotiations that were due to start in the late morning at the United Nations in Geneva.

The two sides are seeking an understanding on the first steps each side would take. Senior Iranian officials and Western diplomats say there are still significant gaps between the two sides and that the talks Thursday and Friday will be difficult.

Both sides are projecting optimism, and the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem is tensely following events. “Israel strongly objects to any easing of the sanctions on Iran before it dismantles its military nuclear program, since a partial easing may bring about the collapse of the entire sanctions effort,” a senior official in Jerusalem said.

Proposed 'first step'

A senior U.S. official said Wednesday that Iran and the six powers would try to reach a “first step” agreement under which Tehran would suspend its nuclear development for six months in return for temporary relief from some of the sanctions. The official added that any new sanctions on Iran at this stage would seriously undermine the negotiations.

During the three weeks since the last round of talks in this Swiss city, Iranian experts have been meeting in Vienna with counterparts from the six powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – to discuss the technical aspects of this first step, including how Iran’s nuclear program would be suspended and which sanctions would be eased.

Meanwhile, U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, who heads the U.S. negotiating team, has been speaking in person and by phone with officials in Israel and the Persian Gulf to update them on these preparatory talks.

The senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters in Geneva on Wednesday, noted that as part of the first-step framework, the six powers want Iran to suspend its nuclear operations in a way that would provide time for negotiating a comprehensive agreement. This phase would focus on the level and quantities of Iran's uranium enrichment, its stockpiles of the material, the capacity of its nuclear facilities including the number of centrifuges installed and operational, as well as international monitoring.

“What we're looking for is a first phase, a first step, an initial understanding that stops Iran's nuclear program from moving forward and rolls it back for the first time in decades,” the official said. “We're looking for ways to put additional time on the clock,” so as to negotiate a permanent agreement that would include all the components of the Iranian nuclear program, he said.

In return, the powers would suggest "very limited, temporary, reversible sanctions relief,” but he gave no details. He stressed that the relief would be for only six months, and if Iran didn't meet its first-stage commitments or if there were no permanent agreement after six months, the sanctions would be reimposed.

The U.S. official said Congress should avoid imposing any additional sanctions on Iran at this time to let the U.S. diplomats maintain the best possible atmosphere during the talks. For a diplomatic solution, the negotiators need room to maneuver, he said. Even if the chance of new sanctions scuttling the talks was only 10 percent, such sanctions were to be avoided, taking into consideration the alternatives to a diplomatic solution, he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama is leaving all options on the table to protect U.S. national security, but it's clear the military option is meant to be a last resort, the official said. An attack wouldn’t end Iran’s nuclear program and could have unintended consequences.

The U.S. official said there were no substantial gaps between the United States and Israel on the Iranian issue; the disagreements were merely tactical. He also mentioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks that the anti-America demonstrations in Tehran this week had exposed “the true face of Iran.” He noted that it was late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who said that one makes peace with one's enemies, not one's friends.

Reuters contributed to this report.