GENEVA -- Talks over Iran's nuclear program headed for a dramatic climax as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif huddled for five hours late into the night Friday in hopes of finding a way to rein in Iran's controversial nuclear program.
A senior State Department official later said they had made progress, and that talks would continue today.
The United States and other world powers have long suspected that Iran's program for enriching uranium would lead to a nuclear weapon, and both sides hoped that they could agree in Geneva on an interim accord that would mark the first real progress in 10 years of acrimony. The drama played out at the European Union's mission to the United Nations, where Mr. Kerry and Mr. Zarif met until 11:30 p.m., together with the EU's chief foreign affairs official, Baroness Catherine Ashton.
Ms. Ashton's spokesman, Michael Mann, afterward said the talks were "good ... serious and businesslike." When Mr. Kerry and Mr. Zarif left the room, "they wished each other good night, and went off," he said. "It seemed friendly." Mr. Mann said the talks would resume today, but he was unable to say when and in what format. He indicated that there was no script. Asked what came next, he said: "Heaven knows."
Mr. Kerry and the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Great Britain flew to Geneva on short notice Friday in anticipation of an agreement, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and a top Chinese official were expected to arrive today.
But it wasn't clear whether an agreement could be reached after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a fit of pique, publicly berated Mr. Kerry for having agreed to what Mr. Netanyahu called a bad deal. "This is a very bad deal, and Israel utterly rejects it," Mr. Netanyahu told reporters in Tel Aviv. "Israel is not obliged by this agreement, and Israel will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and to defend the security of its people."
Mr. Kerry canceled a planned statement, apparently to avoid a public confrontation with Mr. Netanyahu. But upon arriving in Geneva, Mr. Kerry told reporters that "some very important issues" were "unresolved," and they had to be "properly, thoroughly addressed."
President Barack Obama phoned Mr. Netanyahu on Friday to "update him" on the talks in Geneva, the White House said. Mr. Obama "underscored his strong commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons," but it seemed unlikely that he changed Mr. Netanyahu's mind. The White House said only that Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu agreed to "stay in touch."
The unexpected announcement of Mr. Kerry's trip Friday morning amid a swing through the Middle East and North Africa raised hopes that a breakthrough was at hand.
But Mr. Netanyahu's scathing remarks cast a damper over the talks and raised questions about whether the United States was ready to clinch a deal. "I understand the Iranians are walking around very satisfied in Geneva -- as well they should, because they got everything and paid nothing," he said.
Israel is the most vocal foe of a diplomatic settlement with Tehran, but leading Gulf Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, are also skeptical that the Iran dispute can be settled peacefully.
The White House responded that no deal had been concluded. "Any critique of the deal is premature," spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
Others said Mr. Netanyahu's criticism was hyperbolic. Iran is seeking the lifting of the most damaging sanctions, on oil sales and international banking links, but U.S. and other international negotiators in Geneva say that will not occur until there is a comprehensive agreement, which will take months still to negotiate and is unlikely to take effect for another year.
Instead, the interim deal being discussed in Geneva would be based on a series of so-called confidence-building measures, which would see easing of some sanctions in exchange for Iran's agreeing to curb its nuclear enrichment program. Iran already has produced an enormous stockpile of low-enriched uranium and 440 pounds of uranium enriched to 25 percent purity, only a few steps short of the 90 percent pure uranium that would be needed for a nuclear weapon.
The interim deal would allow the United States and its allies to monitor Iranian cooperation and improve the atmosphere for negotiations leading to a final resolution of the dispute.
The United States apparently has agreed in principle to one major change in its positions, accepting that Iran does have the right to enrich uranium, after years of insisting that Iran had no such right.
Mr. Zarif declared on the eve of negotiations that it was too late to stop enrichment, because Iran already had the technology and thousands of scientists engaged in supporting the process.