America has proposed a short-term nuclear agreement with Iran at a meeting in Geneva which would allow Tehran to continue enriching uranium at low levels, according to an aide briefed on the talks.
The goal is to freeze Iran’s nuclear programme for perhaps six months in order to create a breathing space for a comprehensive agreement to be negotiated.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, will travel to Switzerland on Friday to join the talks, fuelling hopes a historic deal may be in sight.
Mr Kerry will go to Geneva “in an effort to help narrow differences in negotiations”, said a senior State Department official.
But Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, warned on Thursday that any deal which failed to stop Iran from enriching uranium would be a “mistake of historic proportions"
Western diplomats and US officials have refused to disclose any details of a “first step agreement”. But a Senate aide, citing briefings from the White House, the State Department and sources in Geneva, said he understood that it would include four key points.
Iran would stop enriching uranium to the 20 per cent level that is close to weapons-grade – and turn its existing stockpile of this material into harmless oxide.
Iran would continue enrichment to the 3.5 per cent purity needed for nuclear power stations – but agree to limit the number of centrifuges being used for this purpose. There would, however, be no requirement to remove or disable any other centrifuges.
Iran would agree not to activate its plutonium reactor at Arak, which could provide another route to a nuclear weapons -capability, during the six-month period. Iran may, however, continue working on the facility.
Iran would agree not to use its more advanced IR-2 centrifuges, which can enrich uranium between three and five times faster than the older model.
In return, American would ease economic sanctions, possibly by releasing some Iranian foreign exchange reserves currently held in frozen accounts. In addition, some restrictions affecting Iran’s petrochemical, motor and precious metals industries could be relaxed.
However, a senior administration official made clear that only “reversible” sanctions would be eased - and they could be re-imposed if Iran were to break any deal.
Hopes of reaching a “first step” agreement of some kind were rising yesterday, with one Western diplomat in Geneva describing the talks as “lengthy, constructive and substantial”.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, told journalists that the “talks went well”, adding: “I’m hopeful that we can move forward. We are making progress, but it’s tough.”
Mr Zarif said it was possible that an agreement could be reached at this meeting, which is expected to conclude on Friday.
However, an interim deal along the lines set out above would alarm Israel and Congressional hawks in Washington.
David Albright, the director of the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank which monitors Iran’s nuclear ambitions, cautioned against an agreement that would not genuinely freeze the programme.
If Iran stopped enrichment to 20 per cent purity and converted its existing stockpile, this would be “nowhere near enough” he said. Any interim agreement would be also undermined if Iran was still able to manufacture centrifuges, including the old IR-1s and the more advanced IR-2Ms.
If so, Iran could then “emerge if the deal fell apart with several thousands IR-1s and IR-2Ms to be deployed rapidly in Natanz, and possibly even a third centrifuge plant,” said Mr Albright. “I think it is quite reasonable to ask Iran to stop centrifuge manufacturing, but I’m not sure the US is going to go there.”
The Senate source gave warning that the deal as currently outlined “would neither freeze nor setback” the time Iran would need to “breakout” to make a nuclear weapon.
”Since Iran could advance its programme to a point of undetectable breakout during the six-month confidence building period, the Senate will have to act immediately to protect America’s national security - and that means imposing further sanctions on Iran,” he said.
Congress is currently considering tough new sanctions on Iran. The White House has successfully lobbied for these to be put on hold pending the outcome of the Geneva talks.
A senior administration official said that further punishment of Iran’s economy could wreck the prospect of a settlement. “If there is only a 10 per cent chance that additional sanctions would put at risk those negotiations - and quite frankly, we believe it’s higher than 10 per cent - we all have an obligation not to take the risk,” said the official.