WASHINGTON -- A senior Obama administration official said Friday that a solution could be found for one of the major stumbling blocks to an agreement that would freeze Iran's nuclear program, and that the accord might be achieved next week.
"For the first time in nearly a decade," the official said, "we are getting close to a first step that would stop the Iranian nuclear program from advancing and roll it back in key areas."
Talks between six world powers and Iran are scheduled to resume Wednesday in Geneva. Western diplomats hope to complete an accord then that would halt Iran's nuclear efforts for six months while negotiators pursue a more comprehensive agreement that would ensure that Tehran's program is solely for civilian purposes.
Iran insists that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, but many experts believe that it is intended to provide Iran with the capability to develop nuclear weapons.
One of the major impediments to an agreement next week is Iran's insistence that the international community formally acknowledge its "right" to continue to enrich uranium. The United States asserts that there is no such right under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
But U.S. officials appear to be seeking a solution in which Iran would be allowed to enrich uranium at the low level of 3.5 percent -- used to fuel most civilian nuclear reactors -- during an interim agreement and also under a comprehensive accord.
The condition would be that Iran accept a series of limitations, including stringent verification, on its nuclear program.
Iran now has some stockpiles of uranium it has enriched to nearly 20 percent, which is used to fuel a specialty reactor but is also much closer to weapons grade uranium.
"I think there is a way to navigate it," the senior administration official said when asked if a compromise might be found on Iran's claim of a right to enrich uranium.
The official did not detail the potential compromise, but one solution, Western diplomats say, would be for Iran and world powers to agree to disagree on how to interpret the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
During a previous round of talks in Geneva, the two sides appeared to be close to cementing an interim agreement that would temporarily freeze Iran's nuclear progress in return for modest relief from economic sanctions.
The talks next week will involve Iran and the countries that make up the P5 plus 1: the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, will begin the talks Wednesday by meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The negotiations will continue over the next few days. If an accord appears to be near, it is possible that Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers will fly to Geneva to complete the deal.