GENEVA – With a boost from Russia and China, Secretary of State John Kerry mounted a major diplomatic push Friday to reach an interim nuclear deal with Iran, despite fierce opposition from Israel and uncertainty in Congress.
But day-long talks, including a five-hour meeting that brought together Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, failed to resolve differences. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, described the late-night session as “productive” but added, without elaboration, that “we still have lots of work to do” and talks would continue today.
A senior State Department official said “over the course of the evening we continued to make progress” but “there is more work to do.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to characterize the talks.
Kerry and his counterparts from Britain, France and Germany arrived in Geneva with the talks at a critical stage following a full day of negotiations Thursday and said some obstacles remained in the way of any agreement offering sanctions reductions for nuclear concessions.
Word that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and a Chinese deputy foreign minister also were headed to the talks provided fresh hope for at least an interim deal, perhaps on Saturday.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted any agreement in the making was a “bad deal” that gave Iran a pass by offering to lift sanctions for cosmetic concessions that Netanyahu said left intact Tehran’s nuclear weapons-making ability.
Asked about Netanyahu’s criticism, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said “any critique of the deal is premature” because an agreement has not been reached.
The White House later said President Obama called Netanyahu to update him on the ongoing talks and said Obama affirmed he’s still committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The White House said Obama and Netanyahu will stay in close contact.
Kerry tempered reports of progress, warning of “important gaps” that must be overcome in the elusive deal that would offer limited sanctions relief if Iran starts capping programs that could make atomic weapons.
Any agreement would be a breakthrough after nearly a decade of mostly inconclusive talks, but would only be the start of a long process to reduce Iran’s potential ability to produce nuclear arms, with no guarantee of ultimate success.
Members of Congress were awaiting the details of any deal between Iran and world powers, but hard-liners were pushing for even stricter sanctions that go well beyond the ones crippling Iran and that the Islamic Republic is hoping to ease. Despite the talks in Geneva, proposed new sanctions could show up as amendments to a defense authorization bill that the Senate will debate later this month.
Rep. Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced he will convene a hearing Wednesday to examine the negotiations with Iran. He said the negotiations carry the risk of “seriously weakening” sanctions, which would be hard to tighten if the Iranians don’t abide by the deal.