U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Amman, Jordan.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Amman, Jordan. Photo by AP
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GENEVA –The nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers are nearing a dramatic turning point. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Geneva on Friday at the invitation of European Union official Catherine Ashton "in an effort to help narrow the differences" between Iran and world powers, a senior U.S. official has said. 

Kerry, whose visit was unplanned,  is expected to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and make a joint statement on reaching a "first step" deal to curb the Iranian nuclear program.

Zarif will also hold a decisive meeting Friday morning with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is conducting the talks on behalf of the so-called P5+1.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday the international community could slightly ease sanctions against Iran in the early stages of negotiating.

"There is the possibility of a phased agreement in which the first phase would be us, you know, halting any advances on their nuclear program ... and putting in place a way where we can provide them some very modest relief, but keeping the sanctions architecture in place," he said in an interview with NBC News.

Sanctions could be tightened if Iran failed to follow through on commitments, he said.  

Significant progress in negotiations was made throughout Thursday.

The talks began late Thursday morning, after Zarif and Ashton breakfasted together, with a joint meeting between the Iranian team and those of all the countries in the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany). That was followed by a series of separate meetings, including one between the Iranians and the combined British, French and German delegations, and another between the Iranians and the Americans.

The goal is to achieve a “first step” agreement, under which Iran would freeze most of its nuclear program for six months, and in exchange would be given partial, temporary and reversible relief from sanctions. This would be in the form of access to frozen bank accounts and the removal of sanctions on trade in gold and petrochemicals. During those six months, negotiations would be held on a permanent deal. As a senior U.S. official explained in a press briefing in Geneva on Wednesday, “We're looking for ways to put additional time on the clock.”

British newspaper The Daily Telegraph quoted an American congressman as saying Iran would halt all uranium enrichment to a level of 20 percent, convert its stock of 20-percent enriched uranium to nuclear fuel, and limit the number of centrifuges engaged in enriching uranium to a 3.5 percent level, though enrichment at this level would not have to stop completely. Iran would also have to eschew the use of its newest centrifuges, which can enrich five times faster than the old ones, and promise not to start its heavy-water reactor in Arak, though it could continue building the reactor.

Zarif and his deputy, Abbas Araghchi, said throughout Thursday they were optimistic about the possibility of making progress. The positive messages coming from the Iranian delegation and the way the diplomats highlighted their successes in negotiation are seen as preparing the public opinion back home for an agreement.

Zarif told reporters that the talks looked very promising, while Araghchi, asked whether the deal would be good for Iran, gave a broad smile and said it most definitely would. In an interview with CNN, Zarif said the deal would uphold Iran’s rights and wouldn’t require it to completely halt uranium enrichment.

Representatives of the P5+1 also sounded optimistic, but more cautious. Ashton’s spokesman, Michael Mann, announced at the end of the day’s talks that progress had been made, while a senior American official involved in negotiations said they had been serious and substantive. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the deal would, for the first time in a decade, halt the progress of Iran’s nuclear program.

Araghchi told reporters that Zarif and Ashton hope to start drafting an agreement at their meeting this morning. In addition to detailing the elements of the “first step” deal, he said the document would also outline the general characteristics of the final deal.

Araghchi added he hoped the agreement would be finalized by this evening. If not, the talks might be extended for another day, or, alternatively, another meeting might be held in another few weeks

Jerusalem, meanwhile, has been following the talks tensely. At a conference of Jewish organizations in Jerusalem on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel completely rejects the proposal under discussion in Geneva. “It will be a historic mistake,”' he said.

Later, at a meeting with visiting American congressmen, he reiterated this message, saying the compromise would be the “deal of the century” for Iran, as it would 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.

“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 added.

Araghchi responded to Netanyahu’s statements in an interview with The Guardian, in which he sarcastically noted that Netanyahu ought to be an authority on mistakes, since he has been making them all his life.