TEL AVIV — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is going to Geneva on Friday to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the sideline of talks regarding Iran's nuclear program. The surprise meeting comes amid reported progress on limiting Iran's uranium enrichment in exchange for easing some of the sanctions imposed over concerns about Tehran's atomic ambitions.
Kerry and Zarif will meet with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at a time when an EU spokesman says the talks over Iran's nuclear program are entering "a serious phase."
When Kerry and Zarif first met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September, it was the highest-level talks between the United States and Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. That meeting led to a telephone call between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
A senior administration official traveling with Kerry says he is going to Geneva at Ashton's invitation "to help narrow the differences" in negotiations. Diplomats from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany, the so-called P5+1, are participating in the meetings with Iran. As a member of that group, the senior U.S. official said Kerry is "committed to doing anything he can" to help this "complex process."
A different U.S. official said that process is now focused on getting Iran to pause its nuclear program to provide time for talks on a longer-term agreement. In return, the official said, the international community would ease some sanctions.
Kerry is going to Switzerland from Israel, where he met again with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday morning. Kerry told President Shimon Peres late Wednesday that "on Iran, our eyes are wide open."
"Our hope is that Iran will understand that this is a simple obligation: show the world that you are pursuing a peaceful program. It’s not that hard. Lots of other nations do it. So we will remember our friends and their interests, and we will be very thoughtful and careful as we proceed," said Kerry.
Prime Minister Netanyahu questioned Iran's sincerity, and said that international pressure should be increased because, he claims, Iran is increasing the pace of its uranium enrichment. Before his talks with Kerry on Friday, Netanyahu told reporters in Tel Aviv that Iran "got everything and paid nothing" because they are not reducing their nuclear enrichment capability in any way.
He said Iran "got the deal of the century and the international community got a bad deal" that Israel "utterly rejects." Netanyahu said Israel "will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and the security of its people."
Israel has long threatened to strike Iran militarily to prevent it from developing an atomic bomb.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said the deal being discussed would offer "modest relief" from the sanctions, but that most would stay in place.
"We can provide them some very modest relief, but keeping the sanctions architecture in place, keeping the core sanctions in place, so that if it turned out during the course of the six months, when we're trying to resolve some these bigger issues, that they're backing out of [the] deal or they're not following through on it, or they're not willing to go forward and finish the job of giving us assurances that they're not developing a nuclear weapon, we can crank that dial back up," said Obama.
President Obama told NBC News there is a possibility of a phased agreement, the first part of which would stop Iran from further expanding its nuclear program.
Iran claims it has no intention of developing such weapons, but parts of its program go beyond what experts say is needed for nuclear power and research. Some believe Iran could be only months away from producing enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb.
Zarif said last week that Iran's new government is working to dispel those concerns because "even a perception that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons is detrimental" to Iranian security.