- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2013

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator claimed Thursday to be on the verge of a breakthrough deal with the U.S. and other world powers that would partially lift sanctions on the Islamic republic in exchange for Tehran agreeing to open its disputed nuclear program to close international scrutiny.

Abbas Araghchi said all sides are likely to begin “compiling the text of an understanding” Friday, the second day of a third round of nuclear talks in Geneva between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group consisting of the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members — the U.S. Britain, France, China and Russia — plus Germany.

“Compiling a written text is a time-consuming, lengthy and hard process and a consensus is needed for each and every word of it,” said Mr. Araghchi, according to a report by the official Iranian news service Fars.

While U.S. officials would not corroborate Mr. Araqchi’s claim late Thursday, a senior State Department official said before this week’s talks that, if Iran agrees to a first step of halting its current nuclear program from advancing, the U.S. would be “prepared to offer limited, targeted and reversible sanctions relief.”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, suggested that a deal with Iran could be signed before the talks close Friday. With the talks being held under secrecy, however, it was not clear Thursday what the details of such deal will look like — or whether it will be reached as quickly as the Iranians say.

In an anonymous statement Thursday, another senior State Department official said that a U.S. delegation led by Wendy Sherman, under secretary of state for political affairs, had engaged in a private, one-hour meeting with the Iranian delegation led by Mr. Araghchi, during which “a substantive and serious conversation” took place.

Should a deal be reached, it would signal a breakthrough in the nuclear talks, which have been stalled for years. Iranian officials say their nuclear program is purely for peaceful and civilian purposes, but U.S. and other Western intelligence services suspect the Islamic republic is secretly enriching uranium toward the development of a nuclear weapon.

Washington’s skepticism also has been fueled by Tehran’s angry posturing toward Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East.

With Israeli leaders warning the world that Iran is dangerously close to developing a bomb, Western powers have imposed harsh sanctions on Tehran. The U.S. also has pushed for a global embargo on Iranian crude oil, which — coupled with the sanctions — have crippled major sectors of Iran’s economy, many Western analysts say.

The core of any deal with Iran is likely come down to whether the Islamic republic agrees in writing to halt its uranium enrichment or limit it substantially. The Obama administration has suggested it might be willing to tolerate limited enrichment activities by Iran, but Israel has pressured Washington to accept nothing less than a total halt in enrichment before any sanctions on the country are lifted.

The potential for the Friday’s talks to fall apart stems from the prospect that Iranian negotiators will demand that their nation be allowed to continue enriching uranium at least on a limited basis.

Iranian leaders have long argued that as a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — a pact Israel hasn’t signed — Iran should be allowed to enrich some uranium for electricity and other civilian purposes, including medical research programs.

According to Fars, Mr. Araghchi reiterated that argument Thursday, telling reporters in Geneva that “enrichment is important to us and is our red line.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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