Nuclear talks in Geneva.
Delegations from Iran and other world powers sit before the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks at the United Nations offices in Geneva, October 15, 2013. Photo by Reuters
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GENEVA - A U.S. official said Wednesday in Geneva that the powers want Iran to halt its nuclear program for six months in exchange for temporary sanctions relief, as a "first step."

The American official added that imposing any new sanctions on Iran at this stage would seriously undermine the negotiations.

A fresh round of nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany –  is due to begin in Geneva on Thursday.

During the three weeks since the last round of talks in Geneva, Iranian experts have been meeting in Vienna with counterparts from the six powers to discuss the technical aspects of this first step, including how Iran’s nuclear program will be suspended and which sanctions would be eased.

At the same time, 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 states to update them on these preparatory talks.

The senior American 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 will provide time for negotiating a comprehensive agreement. This phase must involve levels and scope of Iran's uranium enrichment, its stockpiles of the material, the capacity of its nuclear facilities, including the number of centrifuges installed and made operational, as well as international monitoring, the official said.

“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 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, he said, the six powers would suggest "very limited, temporary, reversible sanctions relief,” giving no detail on what those measures might be. He stressed that the relief would be for only six months, and if Iran doesn’t meet its first-stage commitments or if there is no permanent agreement after six months, the economic sanctions would be re-imposed.

One of the messages the U.S. official stressed was that Congress should avoid imposing any additional sanctions on Iran at this time, to allow the U.S. diplomats to maintain the best possible atmosphere during the negotiations.

Whoever believes that a diplomatic solution is the preferred solution must give the negotiators room to maneuver, he said. Even if there was a 10 percent chance that additional sanctions would scuttle the talks, such sanctions were to be avoided, he said, since the alternatives to a diplomatic solution were not that great.

U.S. President Barak Obama was leaving all options on the table to protect America’s national security, but everyone knows that the military option is meant to be a last resort, the official said. An attack wouldn’t put an end to Iran’s nuclear program, and could have results that are difficult to foresee.

The U.S. official said that there were no substantial gaps between the United States and Israel on the Iranian issue, and that the disagreements were merely tactical. He also addressed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks that the anti-American demonstrations in Tehran earlier this week had exposed “the true face of Iran.” While he did not enjoy hearing the cries of “Death to America,” he said, it was the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who had said that one doesn’t make peace with friends, but with enemies.

The White House issued a rare public statement Wednesday night indicating it was seeking a "phased approach" to the Iranian nuclear issue that would offer Iran "limited and reversible" sanctions relief in exchange for a halt to further progress in Iran's nuclear program.

“The P5+1 is engaged in serious and substantive negotiations with Iran that offer the possibility of a verifiable diplomatic agreement that will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," said National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan. "We are not going to comment on specifics. In general, the P5+1 is focused on developing a phased approach that in the first step halts Iran’s nuclear program from moving forward and potentially rolls back parts of it."

Meehan added that "The first step 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. In exchange for concrete, verifiable measures to address the P5+1’s concerns during the first step, the P5+1 would consider limited, targeted, and reversible relief that doesn't affect our core sanctions architecture. That core sanctions architecture would be maintained until there is a final, comprehensive, verifiable agreement that resolves the international community’s concerns.”