GENEVA -- The United States and five other major powers met with Iran for the third time in five weeks Wednesday to work out the first stage of an agreement to rein in Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from some crippling sanctions.
After the failure to reach an accord in talks less than two weeks ago, signals were mixed Wednesday on whether the preliminary deal might occur this week or take a fourth meeting.
A senior official on the U.S. negotiating team, headed by Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, said, "All arrived here with the commitment to do the hard work needed to reach an agreement," but "we're not in any rush to just get any deal done." The official spoke on condition of anonymity at a briefing.
The more telling sign may be that Geneva's InterContinental Hotel, hosting nearly all the delegations, told reporters that they had to clear their rooms Friday, when Secretary of State John Kerry and his colleagues probably would arrive if there's a deal.
The initial meeting of the seven delegates, chaired by the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, was brief and dealt only with how the talks would proceed Wednesday through Friday. Earlier, Ms. Ashton had a separate meeting with Mr. Zarif that EU spokesman Michael Mann said was "good" and "positive."
The negotiations' goal is to reach the first stage of an accord assuring that Iran's program of nuclear enrichment has entirely peaceful aims and couldn't be used to build an atomic bomb. Iran now has a sizable stockpile of low-enriched uranium, as well as 440 pounds of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity -- enough, if it's purified further, to build a bomb, experts say.
Under the proposed interim deal, Iran would cease adding centrifuges that could turn the mid-enriched uranium into the grade needed for weapons, halt enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity and expand access to its facilities for the International Atomic Energy Agency. In exchange, it would obtain relief from some of the international economic sanctions.
It wasn't clear how the negotiators could overcome the dispute over whether Iran has the right to enrich uranium, as it insists, which the United States, France and other nations have resisted. One possibility is to finesse the legal interpretation of the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by allowing Iran to assert unilaterally that it will continue to produce low-enriched uranium.
Officials apparently are hoping to avert the drama of the Nov. 7-8 talks, when expectations rose after Mr. Kerry unexpectedly came to Geneva halfway through the two-day meeting. The talks failed when his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, said France wouldn't play a "fool's game" by backing the deal on the table.
It turned out that Ms. Ashton, the negotiations' convener, had invited only Mr. Kerry, and then all the other ministers turned up of their own accord. Mr. Fabius, who flew in from Paris, arrived ahead of Mr. Kerry, who was traveling from Israel after hearing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounce the talks.
"Lady Ashton asked Mr. Kerry to come to Geneva, since there were some particularly American issues to discuss concerning sanctions," the senior U.S. official said. "Some others came as well."
Mr. Mann, the Ashton spokesman, concurred. "She invited Kerry to come, and when others expressed their desire to come, they came."
The atmospherics ahead of Wednesday's opening session were mixed.
President Barack Obama's drive to persuade Congress not to impose more sanctions on Iran appeared to have succeeded, and an agreement, even if just a first step, may give Mr. Obama the basis for maintaining the suspension of legislation to bring about new sanctions.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Israel the "rabid dog" of the Middle East, a retort to Mr. Netanyahu's repeated denunciations of Iran. French President Francois Hollande, just back from a visit to Israel, said the ayatollah's remarks were "unacceptable." But aides said France was still hoping for a deal.
Meanwhile, even severe Geneva talks critics seem resigned to an agreement. "The interim deal is probably a done deal," Emily Landau, a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies, said in a phone briefing arranged by the Israel Project, sponsor of many critics of the process. "Now, let's focus on the comprehensive deal, and make sure that it's a comprehensive deal."