Kerry to join Iran nuclear talks in bid to reach deal

Reuters

* Possible compromise on Iran's claimed "right to enrich"uranium

* Kerry, Lavrov, Fabius and Hague to join high-stakes talks

* Iranian chief negotiator sees "considerable progress"

* Fate of Iran's Arak heavy-water reactor remains at issue

* Israel renews campaign of criticising offer to Iran (Adds French, UK foreign ministers to attend talks, Israeli PMquote)

By Louis Charbonneau and Parisa Hafezi

GENEVA, Nov 23 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State JohnKerry will join talks on Iran's nuclear programme in Geneva onSaturday, as Tehran and six world powers appeared to be on theverge of an elusive breakthrough in the decade-old dispute.

The French and British foreign ministers, Laurent Fabius andWilliam Hague, were also due to take part in intensenegotiations on a deal under which Iran would curb its atomicactivity in exchange for some sanctions relief.

The announcements came after diplomats in the Swiss citysaid a major sticking point in the talks, which began onWednesday, may have been overcome.

Kerry would leave for Geneva later on Friday "with the goalof continuing to help narrow the differences and move closer toan agreement," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The decision was taken after consulting with European Unionforeign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is coordinating talkswith Iran on behalf of the six powers, Psaki said.

Later, deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf saidthat Kerry decided to travel to Geneva "in light of the progressbeing made" and with "the hope that an agreement will bereached."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Geneva onFriday evening and met with Iranian Foreign Minister MohammadJavad Zarif and with Ashton, a Russian spokeswoman said.

Fabius was expected to arrive early on Saturday, adiplomatic source said, and Hague said in a Twitter message thathe would also attend the meeting.

Diplomats earlier said a compromise over Iran's insistencethat its "right" to enrich uranium be internationally recognisedhas been proposed, possibly opening the way to a long-soughtbreakthrough.

Fabius expressed hope that a deal could be made. France hastaken a harder line than other Western powers and repeatedlyurged the six-power group not to make too many compromises withTehran.

"You know our position ... it's a position based onfirmness, but at the same time a position of hope that we canreach a deal," Fabius said in Paris.

The United States and other Western powers say there is nosuch thing as a right to enrich - a process that can yield bothelectricity and nuclear bombs - but Iran views it as a matter ofnational sovereignty and crucial to any deal that would resolvethe standoff over its nuclear intentions.

The Islamic Republic also wants relief from economicsanctions in return for any nuclear concessions it makes thatcould allay the West's suspicions that its nuclear fuel-makingprogramme has military rather than its stated civilian goals.

Foreign ministers from the six nations negotiating with Iran- the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany- waded into the previous talks on Nov. 7-9 and came close towinning concessions from Iran, which they count on to reduce therisk of Iran achieving a nuclear weapons capability.

POLITICALLY CHARGED DETAILS

In the days running up to the talks, policymakers from thesix powers said an interim accord on confidence-building stepscould be within reach to start a cautious process of detentewith Iran and banish the spectre of a wider Middle East war.

Under discussion is Iranian suspension of some sensitivenuclear activities, above all medium-level uranium enrichment,in exchange for sanctions relief. That could involve releasingsome Iranian funds frozen in foreign bank accounts and allowingtrade in precious metals, petrochemicals and aircraft parts.

The United States might also agree to relax pressure onother countries not to buy Iranian oil. Tehran has made clear itwants more significant diluting of the sanctions blocking itsoil exports and its use of the international banking system.

Diplomacy on Tehran's nuclear aspirations has revivedremarkably since the election of Hassan Rouhani, a relativemoderate, as president in June on promises of winning sanctionsrelief and diminishing Iran's international isolation.

The sides have struggled to wrap up a deal, bogged down inpolitically vexed details and hampered by mutual mistrust.

Diplomats said new, compromise language being discussed didnot explicitly recognise a right to produce nuclear fuel by anycountry. "If you speak about the right to a peaceful nuclearprogramme, that's open to interpretation," a diplomat toldReuters without elaborating.

No other details were available, but Zarif, Tehran's chiefnegotiator, said earlier in the day that significant headway hadbeen made even though three or four "differences" remained.

The fate of Iran's Arak heavy-water reactor project - apotential source of an alternative bomb material, plutonium -and the extent of sanctions relief were among the otherstumbling blocks, diplomats said.

The OPEC producer rejects suspicions it is covertly tryingto develop the means to produce nuclear weapons, saying it isstockpiling nuclear material for future atomic power plants.

SENATE SANCTIONS PUSH

A senior European diplomat told reporters earlier thatforeign ministers of the six states would come to Geneva only ifthere was a deal to sign. "We have made progress, including coreissues," the diplomat said.

Zarif and Ashton met throughout the day on Friday to try tonarrow the remaining gaps.

Israel continued its public campaign of criticising theoffer of sanctions rollbacks for Iran, voicing its convictionthat all it would achieve would be more time for Iran to masternuclear technology and amass potential bomb fuel.

"I think right now the international community ... has allthe leverage to roll back its (Iran's) nuclear makingcapacities," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toldChannel Rossia in Moscow

"It's a pity, just when they have this maximum leverage,that they're backing off and essentially giving Iran anunbelievable Christmas present - the capacity to maintain thisbreakout capability for practically no concessions at all," hesaid.

For the powers, an interim deal would mandate a halt toIran's enrichment of uranium to a purity of 20 percent - a majortechnical step towards the bomb threshold, more sweeping U.N.nuclear inspections in Iran and an Arak reactor shutdown.

The United States has only limited flexibility during thetalks, however, because of scepticism in the U.S. Congress aboutthe benefits of cutting any deal with Tehran.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Thursday hewas committed to pursuing a tougher Iran sanctions bill when theSenate returns from a recess early next month - even thoughPresident Barack Obama has warned that could derail diplomacy inGeneva.

If a preliminary agreement is reached for a six-monthsuspension of some of Iran's most sensitive nuclear activity,the six powers and Tehran will use that time to hammer out abroader and longer-term accord. (Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak, Fredrik Dahl and JohnIrish in Geneva, Marcus George in Dubai, Steve Gutterman inMoscow, Allyn Fisher in Jerusalem, Hortense de Roffignac inParis, Arshad Mohammed and Lesley Wroughton in Washington;Editing by Mark Heinrich, Giles Elgood and Jackie Frank)

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