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November 23, 2013

Kerry in Geneva for Iran Nuclear Talks

by Scott Stearns

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Geneva for talks on limiting Iran's nuclear program in exchange for easing some economic sanctions against Tehran.

U.S. officials say Kerry's returning to Geneva is not a prediction of a successful outcome to these talks. But they say it is a "good sign" that European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif are continuing to work through some of the obstacles.

State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki sounded optimistic for a deal.

"We're closer than we have ever been in a decade to achieving a diplomatic agreement for a first step with the Iranians," she said.

That first step would give time for talks on a broader deal governing Iran's nuclear program.

"Over the first six months, there would be a discussion of a comprehensive agreement," said Psaki. "But without a first step you certainly don't have a viable path to a comprehensive agreement."

Negotiators here are especially concerned about Iran's enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, which is just a few steps short of what is needed for atomic weapons. Psaki says there will be no substantive reduction in sanctions without limits on enrichment.

"On the enrichment front, the first step, six-month step, would include significant limits on Iran’s enrichment capabilities and existing stockpiles of uranium in order to halt the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and roll it back in key aspects," said Psaki.

Officials traveling with Kerry are mindful of the criticism he received for interrupting a trip to the Middle East earlier this month and coming to Geneva for talks that failed to reach agreement. But the secretary himself seems far less concerned about the appearance of freely spending "diplomatic capital," agreeing to return in light of what Psaki calls "the progress being made."

"The secretary, as you know, believes in personal diplomacy, believes that face-to-face negotiations are effective," said Psaki.

And she says he will do whatever is needed to get a deal that satisfies international concerns about Iran's nuclear program.

"If he needs to help negotiate, he will do that," said Psaki. "If that involves going through paper line by line, I think you’ve all seen that he’s more than happy to do that overnight if that’s needed."

Kerry opened his day in Geneva meeting separately with Ashton, with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.