Senior US official says aim is for March 'understanding' with Iran on nuclear deal


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MONTREUX, Switzerland — A senior U.S. official spoke of some progress Wednesday in reaching a nuclear deal with Iran but tamped down expectations of a formal, preliminary deal this month outlining constraints on Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief for the Islamic Republic.

The official said the negotiations are aiming for a much looser construct — "an understanding that's going to have to be filled out with lots of detail" by their late March target date.

The official demanded anonymity because this person wasn't authorized to discuss the secret negotiations publicly.

Once Iran and the six nations negotiating with it reach such a progress report, President Barack Obama will then determine whether it is grounds to continue talks aimed at a comprehensive deal in June, the official said.

Speaking at the end of a series of meetings at the Swiss resort town of Montreux that included several rounds between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif, the official told reporters that the next round will be held March 15 at a yet undetermined venue.

The talks are facing headwind not only from critics in U.S. Congress who fear the U.S. may accept terms too lenient on Iran but also from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He told Congress Tuesday that the agreement taking shape is dangerous and would allow Iran the ability to develop nuclear weapons.

His speech drew standing ovations, mostly from Republican legislators. But U.S. officials led by President Barack Obama criticized Netanyahu for not presenting any viable alternative to preventing Iran from getting the bomb. Iran, meanwhile, decried pushback from Obama meant to deflect Netanyahu criticism.

Obama this week said that Iran would have to suspend its nuclear activities for at least a decade as part of any final agreement. Zarif, in a statement quoted by Iran's official news agency IRNA, said Obama's remarks were "unacceptable and threatening," aimed at attracting U.S. public opinion while reacting to Netanyahu "and other extremist opponents of the talks."

Playing down the prospects of any damage caused by Netanyahu's speech, the U.S. official said senior Israeli officials would be briefed by secure phone by top U.S. negotiators on the latest round.

Kerry also planned to share results of the negotiations with U.S. allies. He planned to meet with Arab Gulf state allies in Riyadh Thursday before sitting down with the foreign ministers of France, Britain and Germany in Paris on Saturday.

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