GENEVA -- A deal has been reached between six world powers and Iran that calls on Tehran to limit its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief, the French and Iranian foreign ministers said Saturday night.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, ''Yes, we have a deal," as he walked past reporters crowding the hotel lobby where marathon negotiations had taken place over the past five days.
Asked if there was a deal, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said ''Yes" and gave a thumbs-up sign.
The goal had been to hammer out an agreement to freeze Iran's nuclear program for six months, while offering the Iranians limited relief from crippling economic sanctions. If the interim deal holds, the parties will negotiate final-stage agreements to ensure Iran does not build nuclear weapons.
The deal came after the personal intervention by Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers whose presence had raised hopes for a breakthrough.
Diplomats refused to spell out details of the talks, which dragged on past midnight. As the meetings continued into early today, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi described the talks as being in "their 11th hour," with most issues resolved but an agreement still elusive.
Consensus came after nearly a decade of inconclusive international efforts to halt Iran's expanding nuclear program. Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes and not aimed at building nuclear weapons.
The agreement built on the momentum of the historic dialogue opened during September's annual U.N. gathering, which included a 15-minute phone conversation between Mr. Obama and Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, after three decades of U.S.-Iranian estrangement.
For the U.S. and its five partners, the chief concern is uranium enrichment, which can be used to power nuclear reactors as well as serve as the fissile core of warheads.
The six -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- were seeking to halt expansion of Iran's enrichment program, including an end to enriching to a level that can be turned into warhead material within weeks.
They were also looking to increase outside oversight of Tehran's nuclear activities and find a way to ease concerns about a reactor that will produce plutonium when finished. Like enriched uranium, plutonium can arm warheads.
In return, the six powers were offering gradual and limited sanctions relief over six months, depending on Iran's compliance. Core sanctions on oil exports and financial transactions -- the most severe penalties -- are to be kept in place until a final deal is achieved that permanently reduces proliferation dangers from Iran's nuclear activities.
On Saturday, Mr. Araghchi described the talks as being in "their 11th hour," with most issues resolved but an agreement still elusive.
"We have agreed to 98 percent of the draft ... but the remaining 2 percent is very important to us," he told reporters.
While he did not specify what was missing, Mr. Araghchi said Iran would never accept an agreement that did not in some way acknowledge his country's right to enrich uranium -- a key international concern because enrichment can create both reactor fuel and the fissile core of warheads.
For the U.S. and its five partners, the chief concern is uranium enrichment.
Since it was revealed in 2003, Iran's enrichment program has grown from a few dozen enriching centrifuges to more than 18,000 installed and over 10,000 operating.
From uranium ore obtained from South Africa in the 1980s and some locally mined ore, the machines have produced tons of low-enriched uranium, which can be turned into weapons grade material.
Iran also has stockpiled almost 440 pounds of higher-enriched uranium in a form that can be converted in six to nine weeks to fissile warhead material -- almost twice as fast as the low-enriched uranium. Its supply is nearly enough for one bomb.
While saying they are ready for compromise, the Iranians are mindful of criticism from hard-liners back home who oppose dealings with the United States.
Statements on Saturday by senior Iranian negotiators appeared to be an attempt to defuse domestic opposition to a deal that skeptics see as surrendering their country's nuclear sovereignty.
"I assure Iranians enrichment will never stop," Iran's state TV quoted Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as saying. "Iran opposes any demands restricting its rights.' "
The Iranians also are holding out for maximum relief from economic sanctions.
The United States and its partners want to relax sanctions in small, incremental steps during the six months of an interim agreement but not remove them entirely pending a final-stage deal.
Issues were believed to include the level of sanctions relief and the future of a plutonium reactor under construction at Arak that the six powers want closed. Plutonium can also be used to make nuclear weapons.
The U.S. administration has not confirmed details of what concessions on economic sanctions it might offer.
A senior U.S. official told reporters last week that Iran is losing $5 billion a month in lost oil sales alone and $120 billion in total from all sanctions since their imposition, although he did not give a time frame.
The U.S. administration is keen to keep rollbacks limited to placate influential members of U.S. Congress who argue that pressure has brought Iran to the negotiating table and cannot be relaxed until Tehran offers significant concessions.