Negotiations over Iran's controversial nuclear program entered an unscheduled fourth day in Geneva Saturday amid signs that, this time, representatives from Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany have reached agreement on a temporary halt to parts of Tehran's nuclear program in return for a partial lifting of international sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Matters seemed to be well in hand when it was announced in Washington late Friday that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would fly overnight to Geneva in order to join the talks. Earlier Friday evening, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in the Swiss city and met in turn with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who have led the negotiations so far this week.
Two weeks ago several of the foreign ministers of the so-called P5+1 group also flew in to participate in what was expected to be a successful end to the first-stage talks, only to have disagreements appear over some apparently last-minute wording. This time, observers say, one can make book on the likelihood of a deal.
The agreement to halt parts of the nuclear program and to partially lift sanctions would reportedly be for a six month period, while the parties attempt to negotiate a more permanent resolution to the nuclear program.
Iran stands accused of secretly developing nuclear weapons in contravention of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The sanctions, which have had a crippling effect on Iran's economy, were implemented after Iran's repeated failure to cut back on its enrichment of uranium and to allow inspection of certain nuclear facilities as ordered by Security Council resolutions.
Officials in Geneva told reporters that one of the main sticking points two weeks ago – a recognition of Iran's "right" to enrich uranium – may have been resolved by a subtle change in wording.
Tehran has insisted that it will never give up the right to enrich but, a week ago, seemed satisfied that no specific wording to that effect was necessary in the agreement as the NPT itself, to which Iran is a signatory, recognizes that right.
This week, however, the Iranian delegation reportedly insisted on words of recognition following a fiery speech Wednesday by their country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who announced that the right to enrich was a "red line" from which his country's negotiators were not to retreat.
In the same speech, to tens of thousands of Iranian volunteer militiamen, the leader's own choice of words raised many eyebrows. He described Israeli leaders as "rabid dogs" bent on stirring up trouble.
"This is the real Iran [speaking]," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "They must not have nuclear weapons."
The Israeli leader has said no nuclear agreement should reward Iran by lifting any sanctions unless Tehran ends all enrichment, disposes of all enriched materials, dismantles all enrichment equipment and halts construction of a heavy-water reactor in Arak, a facility that will produce plutonium, an alternate means of developing a nuclear weapon.
It was the absence of any stop to the Arak plant that irked France, in particular, two weeks ago and contributed to the break off of talks.
On Friday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, held his cards close to his chest but told reporters, before leaving himself for Geneva, that France remained firm on the matter of the Arak facility and that any agreement on a short term deal would have to take that into consideration.
As for whether Iran or any country has a right to enrich uranium, Article IV of the NPT states: "Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes…"
Such a description of a right to a "peaceful" nuclear program is open to considerable interpretation, diplomats say.