MOSCOW — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov threw his weight Friday behind nuclear talks with Iran, flying to Geneva to join senior negotiators struggling to seal a deal that would see Tehran start to roll back its atomic activities in exchange for sanctions relief.
As diplomats in Geneva struggled to find common language, Russia's Foreign Ministry said that Lavrov was on his way to the Swiss city to take part in the negotiations. The ministry said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that Lavrov may also meet in Geneva with U.N.'s top Syrian envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi.
Lavrov said Wednesday that he could meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry this week, but didn't specify where the meeting would take place. That increased speculation that Kerry could join him in Geneva, along with the foreign ministers of the four other countries negotiating with Iran.
The last round of talks between Iran and the six world powers ended Nov. 10 with no deal even after Kerry, Lavrov, the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany and a Chinese deputy foreign minister flew in and attempted to bridge differences.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat, have met repeatedly since Wednesday to hammer out language on a nuclear deal acceptable to both Tehran and the six powers. Differences on whether Iran has the right to enrich uranium that could be used to make nuclear weapons appeared to be a key sticking point.
The negotiations were supposed to be held between the six and Iranian delegation but those talks have been put on hold except for a brief meeting Wednesday. Instead, Zarif and Ashton have met repeatedly seeking to agree on a text that she would take to the six for approval.
The two met again briefly Friday for talks that Iran's official IRNA news agency described as "complicated and tough." It quoted Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in Geneva that Iran's right to uranium enrichment must be part of any deal.
Iran says it is enriching only for reactor fuel, medical uses and research. But the technology can also produce nuclear warhead material.
Zarif last weekend indicated that Iran is ready to sign a deal that does not expressly state Iran's right to enrich, raising hopes that a deal could be sealed at the current Geneva round.
On Wednesday, however, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said his country would never compromise on "red lines." Since then Tehran has reverted to its original line — that the six powers must recognize this activity as Iran's right under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty despite strong opposition by Israel and within the U.S. Congress.
A senior Iranian negotiator said that the Iranian claim did not need to be explicitly recognized in any initial deal, despite Khamenei's comment. He did suggest, however, that language on that point remained contentious, along with other differences. He demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the diplomatic maneuvering.
Sanctions relief was also an issue.
The United States and its allies have signaled they are ready to ease some sanctions in return for a first-step deal that starts to put limits on Iran's nuclear program. But they insist that the most severe penalties — on Tehran's oil exports and banking sector — will remain until the two sides reach a comprehensive agreement to minimize Iran's nuclear arms-making capacity.
Iran says it does not want such weapons and has indicated it's ready to start rolling back its program but wants greater and faster sanctions relief than that being offered.
Several U.S. senators — both Democrat and Republican — have voiced displeasure with the parameters of the potential agreement, arguing that the U.S. and its partners are offering too much for something short of a full freeze on uranium enrichment.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday that he would support legislation to expand sanctions against Iran, though he said he also backs the negotiating effort. Reid said the threat of more sanctions was essential to get an acceptable deal.
Sen. Bob Corker, the Republicans' top member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Thursday proposed a bill outlining a final agreement, including an end to all Iranian enrichment activity, and seeking to restrict President Barack Obama's capacity to offer sanctions relief.