Iran and powers close in on 2-3 page nuclear deal, success uncertain

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(Reuters) - Iran and major powers are close to agreeing a two- or three-page accord with specific numbers as the basis of a resolution of a 12-year standoff over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, officials have told Reuters.

As the French and German foreign ministers arrived in Switzerland on Saturday to join talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Western and Iranian officials familiar with the negotiations cautioned that they could still fail.

Kerry and Zarif have been in Lausanne for days to try to reach an outline agreement by a self-imposed deadline of March 31 between Iran on the one hand and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China on the other.

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Iran and powers close in on 2-3 page nuclear deal, success uncertain
US Secretary of State John Kerry organizes his papers during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill July 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. US Secretary of State John Kerry, US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and US Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew appeared before the committee to defend the Obama administrations proposed deal with Iran over the county's nuclear program. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) sits next to British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond as they attend a plenary session at the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. Iran and six major world powers reached a nuclear deal on Tuesday, capping more than a decade of on-off negotiations with an agreement that could potentially transform the Middle East, and which Israel called an 'historic surrender'. AFP PHOTO / POOL / CARLOS BARRIA (Photo credit should read CARLOS BARRIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in his office in Jerusalem on July 14, 2015, after world powers reached a historic nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu said after the deal was reached that Israel was not bound by it and signalled he remained ready to order military action . AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)
(From L to R) Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz pose for a group picture at the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. Iran and six major world powers reached a nuclear deal, capping more than a decade of on-off negotiations with an agreement that could potentially transform the Middle East, and which Israel called an 'historic surrender'. AFP PHOTO / POOL / JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
German Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier (L) ,French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (3rd L), China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (5th L), Federica Mogherini (C), High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, US Secretary of State John Kerry (3rd R), British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond (2nd R) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) sit around the table at the Palais Coburg Hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria on July 6, 2015. Foreign ministers from major powers began crunch talks in Vienna on Monday seeking to seal a historic nuclear deal to end a 13-year standoff, one day before a final deadline, officials said. AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (L), French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (3rd L) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) sit around the table at the Palais Coburg Hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria on July 6, 2015. Foreign ministers from major powers began crunch talks in Vienna on Monday seeking to seal a historic nuclear deal to end a 13-year standoff, one day before a final deadline, officials said. AFP PHOTO / POOL / CARLOS BARRIA (Photo credit should read CARLOS BARRIA/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry walks delivers a statement on Cuba outside the hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria, July 1, 2015. Talks between Iran and major powers towards a historic nuclear deal are facing tough issues but are making progress, US Secretary of State John Kerry said during a break from talks in Vienna. AFP PHOTO / CHRISTIAN BRUNA (Photo credit should read CHRISTIAN BRUNA/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama gestures while making a statement at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 2, 2015 after a deal was reached on Iran's nuclear program. Iran and world powers agreed on the framework of a potentially historic deal aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear drive after marathon talks in Switzerland. AFP PHOTO/ NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 14: Sen. Bob Corker, Senate Foreign Relations chairman, arrives for a briefing on Iran nuclear negotiations with Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama's chief of staff Jack Lew in the Capitol on Tuesday, April 14, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius (R) listens on as US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a joint press conference on March 7, 2015 at the Foreign Affairs Minister in Paris. Kerry had flown into Paris just a couple of hours earlier in a bid to shore up European support for the proposed deal with Iran ahead of a March 31 deadline. AFP PHOTO /ERIC FEFERBERG (Photo credit should read ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
EU political director Helga Schmid (CL) seats next to Iran's deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi (R) at the opening of nuclear talks between Iran and Members of the P5+1 group on March 5, 2015 in Montreux. The so-called P5+1 group of Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany is trying to strike an accord that would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 03: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd L) talks to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) (L) as Senate Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) (R) looks on during a photo-op prior to a meeting at the U.S. Capitol March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. At the risk of further straining the relationship between Israel and the Obama Administration, Netanyahu addressed a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress warning congressional members against what he considers an ill-advised nuclear deal with Iran. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) is greeted by French Foreign Minister Fabius Laurent, on March 7, 2015, at the French Foreign Ministry in Paris. Flying in from London on the last stop of a week-long trip, Kerry will meet with the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Britain to brief them on the status of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. AFP PHOTO/ERIC FEFERBERG (Photo credit should read ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND - MARCH 28: German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrives at Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland where he came for the nuclear talks with Iran on March 28, 2015. (Photo by Fatih Erel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND - MARCH 28: German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrives at Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland where he came for the nuclear talks with Iran on March 28, 2015. (Photo by Fatih Erel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L) face French Director-General for Political and Security Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nicolas de Riviere (2nd R), and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (R) at the opening of a bilateral meetinh at Iran nuclear talks on March 28, 2015 in Lausanne. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
The director-general for political and security affairs at the French Foreign Ministry, Nicolas de Riviere (2nd R), and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (R) wait look on March 28, 2015 before a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel March 28, 2015 in Lausanne. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Fabius met while in Switzerland for negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (C) takes a walk before meetings at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel March 28, 2015 in Lausanne. Iranian officials are in Switzerland to continue negotiations on their nuclear program with other world powers. AFP PHOTO / POOL / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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"The sides are very, very close to the final step and it could be signed or agreed and announced verbally," a senior Iranian official familiar with the talks told Reuters on condition of anonymity. Other officials echoed the remarks while warning that several crucial issues were still being hotly debated.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters on arrival: "I hope we can get a robust agreement. Iran has the right to civil nuclear power, but with regard to the atomic bomb, it's 'no'."

"The talks were long and difficult," he added. "We have moved forward on certain points, but on others not enough."

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› FACT BOX: Key issues in Iran nuclear talks with world powers

18 MONTHS OF TALKS

The negotiations, under way for nearly 18 months, aim to hammer out an accord under which Iran, which denies any ambition to build nuclear weapons, halts sensitive nuclear work in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, with the ultimate aim of reducing the risk of a war in the Middle East.

Ahead of another meeting with Zarif on Saturday, Kerry said he expected the discussions to run late. Zarif added that the meetings would run through "evening, night, midnight, morning".

The British and Russian foreign ministers were due to arrive in Lausanne over the weekend, along with a senior Chinese official.

If agreed, the document would cover key numbers for a comprehensive agreement between Iran and the six powers, such as the maximum number and types of uranium enrichment centrifuges Iran could operate, the size of uranium stockpiles it could maintain, the types of atomic research and development it could undertake, and details on the lifting of international sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy.

Two officials said it was likely that most of the outline agreement would be made public, though some said certain sections would be kept confidential.

Several Iranian officials denied that Iran was close to agreeing an outline document, but a Western diplomat who confirmed the Reuters story said the comments were aimed at a domestic audience.

COMPREHENSIVE DEAL BY JUNE

One of the key numbers is expected to be the duration of the agreement, which the officials said would have to be in place for more than 10 years. Once it expired, there would probably be a period of special U.N. monitoring of Tehran's nuclear program.

The framework accord should be followed by a comprehensive deal by June 30 that includes full technical details on the limits set for Iran's sensitive nuclear activities.

It remains unclear whether the framework deal will be formally signed or agreed verbally. The Iranians have expressed concern that a written agreement would limit their negotiating space when the technical details are worked out.

The officials cautioned that, even if such a preliminary deal was done in the coming days, there was no guarantee that agreement would be reached on the many technical details.

Some details have been out in the open for months. An Iranian government website said in November that Washington could let Iran keep some 6,000 early-generation centrifuges, down from nearly 10,000 now in operation.

Along with the timetable for the lifting of U.N. sanctions, officials say the biggest sticking point in the talks remains centrifuge research and development. They say Iran wants to conduct advanced centrifuge research at the underground Fordow site, but the Western powers dislike the idea of Iran operating centrifuges there.

The deal would call for U.S., European Union and U.N. sanctions to be lifted according to a specific schedule, though some could be lifted very quickly, the officials said.

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