Iran nuke talks resume amid contentious US-Israel debate

Foreign Minister Zarif and Secretary of State Kerry meet in Switzerland as negotiations get back underway

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif prepare to take their seats for a new round of nuclear negotiations in Montreux, Switzerland, on March 2, 2015.  (photo credit: AFP/POOL /EVAN VUCCI)
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif prepare to take their seats for a new round of nuclear negotiations in Montreux, Switzerland, on March 2, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/POOL /EVAN VUCCI)

Top diplomats from Iran and the US began a new round of marathon talks on a nuclear deal late Monday, as Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu warned the emerging accord could threaten his country’s survival.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met in a Swiss lakeside hotel for a series of sessions which are scheduled to stretch into Wednesday afternoon.

They were accompanied by US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi, who according to the Iranian news agency IRNA had first met earlier for about 90 minutes.

Iranian negotiators Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht Ravanchi also held talks with US Under Secretary Wendy Sherman as well as the EU’s deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid, IRNA added.

The pace and intensity of the negotiations to hammer out a deal to rein in Iran’s suspected nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief have gathered pace as a March 31 deadline for a political accord nears.

“We are all focused simultaneously on the need to elicit from Iran answers to questions about their nuclear program –- not just answers for today, but answers that are capable of lasting well into the future,” Kerry told reporters in Geneva.

He stressed global powers, grouped under the P5+1, were not seeking “a deal at any cost” but to ensure that the “four pathways to a nuclear bomb have been closed off.”

“We hope we can get there, but there is no guarantee,” Kerry added.

However, he also rebuffed talk that military action could deter Iran from reaching a nuclear weapon.

“Now, there may be disagreements; if somebody believes that any kind of program is wrong, then we have a fundamental disagreement. And clearly, sanctions are not going to eliminate just any kind of program. You can’t bomb knowledge into oblivion unless you kill everybody. You can’t bomb it away. People have a knowledge here,” he said.

Kerry and Zarif first met for about 50 minutes Monday evening, and resumed their talks at after a short break.

As a deal appears within grasp, the US administration has clashed with Israel, with Netanyahu saying he would address Congress on Tuesday “to speak up about a potential deal with Iran that could threaten the survival of Israel.”

Pushing back against the content of Netanyahu’s expected speech to Congress ahead of his meeting with Zarif, Kerry maintained that the United States would never allow Iran to get the bomb. And, he insisted, in a jab at Netanyahu, that critics of the emerging deal were wrong and should not publicize details of the as-yet incomplete agreement as senior Israeli officials have said the prime minister will do.

“Right now, no deal exists, no partial deal exists,” he told a news conference in Geneva. “And unless Iran is able to make the difficult decisions that will be required, there won’t be a deal. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That is the standard by which this negotiation is taking place, and anyone who tells you otherwise is simply misinformed.”

That said, he suggested that revealing details of any preliminary understandings with Iran could be fatal to the goal of a diplomatic resolution to fears of a nuclear-armed Iran.

“We are concerned by reports that suggest selective details of the ongoing negotiations will be discussed publicly in the coming days,” Kerry said. “I want to say clearly that doing so would make it more difficult to reach the goal that Israel and others say they share in order to get a good deal.”

“Israel’s security is absolutely at the forefront of all of our minds, but frankly, so is the security of all the other countries in the region, so is our security in the United States,” he added.

In Geneva, Kerry defended Israel at the UN Human Rights Council, pledging that the United States would continue to oppose anti-Israel action and bias at the United Nations and elsewhere. The US envoy to the UN, Samantha Power, made similar remarks in Washington to the American Israel Public Affairs Council, where President Barack Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice was expected to echo those sentiments later Monday.

The Montreux talks are expected to last until Wednesday and will be underway when Netanyahu delivers his speech.

Among unresolved issues meant to be part of an agreement is a ruling by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency on whether Iran worked on nuclear arms in the past.

Tehran denies that but the agency says it has information suggesting such activity. It has remained essentially stalemated for a decade, however, in attempts to follow up on its suspicions. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano showed some exasperation Monday with Iran’s refusal to cooperate with his probe, telling reporters outside a 35-nation IAEA board meeting that “not engaging with us is not a solution.”

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