John Kerry remains cautious on Iran nuclear deal

Top US diplomat warns that significant differences remain with Tehran over curbing atomic programme as Israel fumes over possible agreement

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 November, 2013, 11:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 November, 2013, 3:41am

US Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday important gaps needed to be bridged in high-stakes talks with Iran on curbing its nuclear programme and he would meet Tehran's foreign minister shortly to try to clinch an interim deal.

"I want to emphasise there is not an agreement at this point," Kerry said after arriving in Geneva, tempering hopes of a breakthrough that would reduce the risk of a Middle East war over Iran's nuclear aspirations.

"We hope to try to narrow these differences but I don't think anybody should mistake there are some important gaps that have to be closed," he said.

Israel … will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and the security of its people

Midway through the second round of negotiations since Iran elected a moderate president who opened doors to a peaceful solution to the nuclear dispute, Kerry joined fellow big-power foreign ministers in Geneva to help cement a preliminary accord, with Israel warning they were making an epic mistake.

But diplomats said the arrival of Kerry, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and French and German foreign ministers Laurent Fabius and Guido Westerwelle signalled that the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany may be closer to an elusive pact with Iran than ever.

Kerry was expected to hold a trilateral meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The top US diplomat arrived from Tel Aviv where he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who regards Iran's atomic aspirations as a menace to the Jewish state.

The negotiations in Geneva involve Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council - the US, Russia, China, France and Britain - plus Germany.

Netanyahu warned Kerry he was offering Iran the "deal of the century" and vowed that Israel would not be bound by any international agreement on Iran's nuclear programme.

He said Israel reserved the right to do whatever is necessary to defend itself - a clear allusion to a pre-emptive military strike.

After meeting Kerry, who had a brief stopover in Amman before flying to Geneva, Netanyahu said: "This is a very bad deal. Israel utterly rejects it. Israel is not obliged by this agreement and will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and the security of its people."

Israel - which has the Middle East's sole, if undeclared, nuclear arsenal - opposes any easing of sanctions on a country whose leaders in the past have denied the Holocaust and said the Jewish state should cease to exist.

It views a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat and has consistently refused to rule out a pre-emptive military strike to prevent that from happening.

Netanyahu added: "I understand that the Iranians are walking around very satisfied in Geneva, as well they should be, because they got everything and paid nothing.

"They wanted relief of sanctions after years of a gruelling sanctions regime - they got that - and they are paying nothing because they are not reducing in any way their nuclear enrichment capability."

The talks in Geneva have raised hopes of the first breakthrough in a decade in limiting Iran's uranium enrichment efforts, which Western powers suspect are aimed at developing nuclear weapons.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is aimed at generating electricity and for medical purposes. Zarif said he believed a deal could be reached "before we close these negotiations".

Officials say the proposed deal could see Tehran freeze its nuclear efforts in exchange for relief from sanctions.

Additional reporting by AFP