Crunch talks between Iran and world powers stretched into an unscheduled third day Saturday as top diplomats pushed for a deal to end the decade-old standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was on his way to join the talks in Geneva, where the US, British, French and German foreign ministers rushed on Friday hoping to seal a breakthrough.
The hoped-for agreement – seen as a first step ahead of further talks on a final deal – could see Tehran freeze its nuclear efforts for as long as six months in exchange for some relief from the sanctions that have battered its economy.
Russian news agency Interfax quoted sources saying Lavrov was hoping for a meeting of all the foreign ministers gathered in Geneva once he arrived.
Western officials, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, have expressed caution at the talks, warning major obstacles remain to be overcome.
Kerry, who cut short a Middle East tour to join the talks, said on arriving in Geneva: “There are still some very important issues on the table that are unresolved.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said early Saturday that there were “some points on which we are not satisfied”.
“There is an initial draft that we do not accept… I have no certainty that we can finish up” at this stage, Fabius told France Inter radio.
In a series of meetings early Saturday, both Kerry and Fabius met with EU diplomatic chief Catherine Ashton, who has represented the six world powers at the talks.
The three were then to huddle together with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle.
Talks between Kerry, Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif continued until nearly midnight on Friday and were set to resume early Saturday.
Fabius was also to hold separate talks Saturday with Ashton and Zarif.
“We continued to make progress as we worked to narrow the gaps. There is more work to do,” a senior State Department official said after Friday’s talks.
“The meeting was productive but we still have lots of work to do,” Iran’s lead negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, also said after Friday’s talks.
If some sort of agreement is reached, it would be a breakthrough after a decade of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group comprising the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
Reports say the proposed deal could see Tehran stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, which is just a few technical steps from weapons grade, reduce existing stockpiles and agree not to activate its plutonium reactor at Arak.
Global powers would in exchange take limited and “reversible” measures to ease sanctions, such as unfreezing some Iranian funds in foreign accounts.
Negotiators would then have time to work out a more comprehensive deal that Tehran has said it hopes could be in place within a year.
The possible deal already came fire under from Israel, which has staunchly opposed any easing of sanctions against Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who hosted Kerry on a brief stopover before Geneva, urged world powers on Friday to back away from the agreement.
“Iran got the deal of the century and the international community got a bad deal, this is a very bad deal. Israel utterly rejects it,” Netanyahu told reporters.
Washington rejected the Israeli criticism, with White House spokesman Josh Earnest saying: “There is no deal. Any critique of the deal is premature.”
US President Barack Obama also called Netanyahu after his remarks, the White House said.
“The president provided the prime minister with an update on negotiations in Geneva and underscored his strong commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” a White House statement said.
Iran has repeatedly denied its nuclear program is for anything other than generating electricity and for medical purposes.
The head of the UN atomic watchdog, Yukiya Amano, will travel to Tehran on Monday to discuss “technical issues” related to monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, the agency said in a statement.
Iran expects to sign an accord with Amano then, Tehran’s ambassador to the UN agency said Saturday.
“The Islamic republic of Iran has presented a new proposal that includes concrete actions, and we foresee that the text will be finalized on Monday and that the two sides will reach agreement,” Reza Najafi told state television.
The two paths of talks with Iran over its atomic activities were given new momentum by the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rohani, seen as a relative moderate.
Iran is anxious for relief from crippling US and EU economic sanctions that have cut oil revenues by more than half, caused the value of the rial to plunge and pushed inflation above 40 percent.