Nuclear deal with West ‘very close,’ Zarif says

Iranian FM says Netanyahu is ‘fanning hysteria’; Kerry says P5+1 won’t be distracted by Israeli prime minister

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif,  February 17, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/MAXIM MALINOVSKY)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, February 17, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/MAXIM MALINOVSKY)

Iran is “very close” to achieving a nuclear deal with international powers, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Wednesday.

Speaking to NBC News, Zarif said Iran is not seeking to build nuclear weapons. “We do not believe nuclear weapons bring security to anybody, certainly not to us,” Zarif said, adding that he hoped the emerging deal would ensure that Iran’s nuclear program “will always remain peaceful.”

He further stated that Iran is prepared to work “around the clock” in order to reach an agreement, which he said was very close.

“We are very close if the political decision can be made to get to yes, as President Obama said,” he said.

The comments came after he wrapped up three days of high-level talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Switzerland.

“We’ve made some progress from where we were and important choices need to be made,” Kerry told reporters after the talks, with a senior State Department official adding that “tough challenges” had yet to be resolved.

Zarif sounded more optimistic, telling Iranian news agency ISNA that “despite existing differences, a final deal is not too far off.”

But he warned that the thorny issue of sanctions, which Iran wants lifted, risked torpedoing the deal.

“The Western countries, and especially the United States, must decide whether they want a nuclear deal or to continue the sanctions,” he said.

Speaking a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stridently criticized an agreement he said would not stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, Kerry stressed that the purpose of negotiations was to “get the right deal, one that can withstand scrutiny”.

Kerry said that “any deal we reach would give us the intrusive access and verification measures necessary to confirm that Iran’s nuclear facilities are indeed on a peaceful path.

“That would allow us to promptly detect any attempt to cheat or break out and then to respond appropriately.”

He cautioned that the so-called P5+1 countries — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany — negotiating with Iran would not “be distracted by external factors or politics”.

Zarif meanwhile told Iranian state television the sides had made progress on the issue of its Fordo nuclear plant, but still had a way to go on Arak.

The world powers negotiating with Iran want to block the country from enriching uranium at Fordo, and from developing weapons-grade plutonium at its unfinished Arak reactor, a senior US official said last week.

Kerry flew to Riyadh later Wednesday to brief US Gulf allies on the emerging deal and plans to meet in Paris on Saturday with his British, French and German counterparts.

The growing rapprochement between the United States and its old foe after more than three decades of enmity has raised alarm not just in Israel, but also among US allies in the Gulf who remain wary of Shiite Iran’s bid to spread its influence in the Middle East.

US officials insist that even if there is a nuclear deal with Iran, they will not turn a blind eye to the other activities of the country, still branded by Washington as the number one state sponsor of terrorism.

“We are not linking the nuclear agreement or a successful nuclear agreement to a broader warming of ties, to a broader rapprochement on other issues, or in general,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in Washington.

The next two-way talks between Iran and the United States will be held on March 15, most likely in Geneva, although the venue has not been confirmed.

P5+1 negotiations at political director level will continue in Montreux on Thursday, and a team from the UN atomic watchdog will hold talks in Tehran next week.

Zarif, speaking to NBC, said a deal will be made possible “once this fear mongering is out,” possibly referring to Netanyahu’s speech Tuesday, in which he assailed the emerging nuclear deal and warned it “paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

“There may be people who may have been affected by the type of hysteria that is being fanned by people like Mr. Netenyahu,” Zarif said, adding that “it is useful for everybody to allow this deal to go through.”

Zarif said he hoped to reach a deal that would ensure that Iran’s nuclear program “will always remain peaceful.”

A senior US official spoke of some progress Wednesday in reaching a nuclear deal with Iran but tamped down expectations of a formal, preliminary deal this month outlining constraints on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief for the Islamic Republic

The official said the negotiations are aiming for a much looser construct — “an understanding that’s going to have to be filled out with lots of detail” by their late March target date.

Once Iran and the six nations negotiating with it reach such a progress report, US President Barack Obama will then determine whether it is grounds to continue talks aimed at a comprehensive deal in June, the official said.

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