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Wendy Sherman, the chief American nuclear negotiator held a brief meeting Wednesday night with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, but a senior State Department official said that Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat, was the only leader to hold direct and formal talks with the Iranians Thursday at the high-end Intercontinental Hotel here.
The State Department official said leaders from the so-called P5+1 -- the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China -- held bilateral talks throughout the day and stressed that Ashton was negotiating on behalf of the entire group. Despite the darkening atmosphere, it's too soon to conclude that the talks are unraveling. The current talks are designed to freeze -- or at least slow -- Iran's nuclear program for roughly six months while the two sides work towards a comprehensive agreement. The U.S. and its allies would give Tehran access to roughly $7 billion in frozen assets as part of any interim deal. Privately, two Western officials said Thursday's talks had been fairly productive and that there was still a decent chance of a deal. The officials said Iran might have been posturing to show their domestic audience back home that they were taking a hardline with the P5+1 rather than simply agreeing to every Western demand.
Still, the lack of any direct contact between American and Iranian negotiations on the second day of what is supposed to be a three-day conference was striking. American officials say the talks can be extended through the weekend if a deal was close at hand, but the talks could also come to an abrupt halt Friday if the remaining differences between the two sides can't be bridged.
There has been quite a bit of talk this week about the intense security restrictions placed on reporters in Geneva. Swiss security guards took things a step further Friday when Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov arrived at the Intercon hotel, shushing reporters and telling them they weren't allowed to ask questions.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, arrived in Geneva on Friday night to take part in negotiations on Iran's nuclear programme as diplomats said there were just a few outstanding issues preventing a breakthrough.
Lavrov's spokeswoman said that Lavrov would meet the UN special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, while in Switzerland, though details of the meeting had yet to be arranged. The main reason for flying to Geneva, she said, was to take part in the Iran talks. Li Baodong, China's deputy foreign minister, also arrived on Friday at the talks venue, a central Geneva hotel.
There were reports that the US secretary of state, John Kerry, would come for the conclusion of negotiations, but with the outcome in the balance late Friday, the state department could not confirm his movements.
The flurry of raised expectations came on the third day of the third round of intense and detailed nuclear talks with Iran since the election of the reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, aimed at a deal that would defuse tensions in the Gulf and push back the threat of a new war in the Middle East.
Diplomats in Geneva said talks had whittled down the number of sticking points to a small handful. There were also unconfirmed reports that one of the most intractable issues, the question of Iran's right to enrich uranium, had been resolved with a form of words in the draft agreement that satisfied both sides.
US Secretary of State John Kerry will fly to London from Geneva on Sunday to meet British and Libyan officials, the U.S. State Department said.
Kerry arrived in Geneva on Saturday to join talks between six major powers and Iran about reining in the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions on Tehran. Foreign ministers from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States attended the discussions.
The United States and some of its allies suspect Iran of using its civil nuclear program as a cover to develop atomic weapons. Tehran denies this, saying its program is for purely peaceful purposes such as generating electricity.
Kerry's planned departure for London, where he is to meet British Foreign Minister William Hague and Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan on Sunday, suggests the Iran nuclear talks may wrap up by Sunday, though lower level officials could stay at them.
An Iran nuclear deal within reach, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and five other foreign ministers focused Saturday on the fine print of a draft agreement meant to satisfy not only the other side, but also to placate powerful domestic forces that fear giving too much for too little in return.
Diplomats refused to spell out details of the talks, held in a five-star Geneva hotel. But comments from both sides suggested negotiations focused on detailed wording that could be key in shaping an agreement that both sides could live with.
Even though diplomats were said to be close to a deal after four days of talks, they also warned against expectations that a final agreement was imminent due to the complexity of the issues and the stakes for all sides.