Nuclear deal for Iran tantalisingly close – but US Secretary of State John Kerry warns that tensions in Middle East remain

Hopes rise for nuclear deal with Iran, to the fury of Israel and Saudi Arabia

Diplomatic Correspondent

After years of futile talks, accusations, recriminations and sanctions, the international community and Iran seem to be coming towards a deal over the country’s contentious nuclear programme.

There was a sense of “seizing the moment” today with the United States, Britain, France and Germany sending their foreign ministers to Geneva. The Russians and Chinese were not planning to attend, but indicated their backing for the plan which it is hoped will emerge.

In broad terms, it is hoped that Iran will limit uranium enrichment in return for the easing of international sanctions which have begun to seriously damage its economy. Tehran’s chief negotiator, Abbas Aragchi, declared that the six world powers which had been carrying out the negotiations had “clearly said that they accept the framework proposed by us” and all were “ready to start drafting” the agreement.

Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two countries who regard Iran with deep and implacable suspicion, were caught by surprise. Both expressed their anger, the former publicly, the latter in private. In Jerusalem, Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out saying: “Iran has got the deal of the century and the international community has got a very bad deal.” The view, he added was “shared by many, many in the region whether or not they express it publicly”.

By the “many” the Israeli Prime Minister meant the Sunni Arab states, led by the Saudis, traditionally hostile to Shia Iran. The US Secretary of State John Kerry had visited Riyadh before meeting Mr Netanyahu. According to senior diplomats Mr Kerry was left in no doubt by King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal about their mistrust of Tehran’s intentions.

The Saudis, according to one narrative, have taken out an insurance policy against Iran acquiring a nuclear arsenal. The account is without corroboration, but has taken on great resonance in some quarters. On 1 January 2013, it is claimed, Crown Prince Salman, Deputy Premier and Defence Minister, visited Islamabad and commissioned Pakistan to build nuclear weapons for a multibillion-dollar figure which can be transferred to the Kingdom at short notice if Tehran gets the bomb.

There are more immediate, and verifiable, obstacles to a deal. On Thursday night Barack Obama stated that a slight easing on sanctions may be possible, but Congress, where the Israeli lobby is influential, is in the process of introducing even tougher punitive measures.

An amendment being put forward would impose stiff restrictions on the US administration on easing embargoes unless concessions were made by Iran far beyond what is being envisaged in Geneva. Republican senator Bob Corker said: “We’re very concerned that in their desire to make any deal they may in fact do something that is very bad for our country.”

The Iranian government, which began the latest round of dialogue after Hassan Rouhani, a reformist, came to power at the last election, may also have problems convincing hardliners to back the agreement. However, some Western diplomats held that the sheer vehemence of Israel’s opposition may be a selling point to senior clerics and the security establishment in Iran. One senior official who has been involved with the negotiations said: “We get the sense that internal dynamics in Iranian politics is changing. Some powerful figures now want some kind of resolution.”

One of the most significant signs of this has been pronouncements by Ali Larijani, the highly influential Speaker of the Majlis (parliament) who expressed optimism about the talks and wished that “misunderstandings which have been a hindrance” in the past were cleared up. He also made a point of praising the “promising diplomatic moves” of the new government. Conservative elements had previously criticised President Rouhani for conciliatory remarks he had made during a visit to the United Nations in New York.

There is consensus that significant progress has been made since the last set of talks, also in Geneva, three weeks ago. The US State Department said that Mr Kerry will be travelling to Geneva “in an effort to narrow differences in negotiations”. Mr Kerry later stressed that Tehran would need to prove that its actions on atomic energy were “peaceful” and Washington would not make a “bad deal, that leaves any of our friends or ourselves exposed to a nuclear weapons programme”.

The Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said: “I believe all the ingredients are there, I believe there is a general understanding of everyone involved … We can decide whether it’s a major deal or a small step in the right direction. I hope it’s more than a small step in the right direction, but I’ll be happy with that small step.”

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