Washington (CNN)Compromises on some of the crucial issues that have long divided the West and Iran over the latter's nuclear program -- including the number of centrifuges Tehran can keep in any deal -- are being reached in ongoing talks, according to Western officials.
Compromises being reached in Iran talks
Two Western diplomats told CNN Thursday that the parties are narrowing in on 6,000 centrifuges, down from the 6,500 that had been under discussion.
But both American and Iranian officials strongly denied that there was a draft agreement under review, as the Associated Press reported earlier in the day.
"There's no draft document being circulated," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday, as negotiations ahead of a March 31 deadline for a framework deal continue in Lausanne, Switzerland. "The fundamental framework issues are still under comprehensive discussion."
Testifying at a congressional hearing Thursday morning, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken also denied the report.
"My understanding is that there is no draft," Blinken said.
A senior Iranian negotiator similarly stated that "we haven't started drafting yet" and that no specific details on issues such as the number of centrifuges have been agreed to.
"The numbers and figures mentioned here and there are just imaginations," Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araqchi told Iran's state-run Press TV.
But in a signal that talks were progressing, Obama used his message for the Iranian New Year celebration, known as Nowruz, to urge the people of Iran to speak out in favor of a deal, and to warn that there will be consequences if Iranian leaders abandon talks.
"If [Iranian leaders] cannot agree to a reasonable deal, they will keep Iran on the path it's on today," he said, according to prepared remarks, "a path that has isolated Iran, and the Iranian people, from so much of the world, caused so much hardship for Iranian families, and deprived so many young Iranians of the jobs and opportunities they deserve."
He went on to frame the current opportunity to secure a deal as fleeting and historic, one, he said, "we should not miss."
The President also said in his Nowruz message that "the days and weeks ahead will be critical" for negotiations, and acknowledged that while "negotiations have made progress...gaps remain."
One of those gaps in the negotiations concerns the number of centrifuges Iran can use to enrich uranium.
While Iran claims its nuclear program is peaceful in nature, the U.S. is determined to restrict the amount of time in which Iran would be able to produce the fissile material for one nuclear weapon -- referred to as "breakout time" -- to more than a year. Limiting the number of centrifuges would be key to such a goal.
The delegations, which also include the U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China, are also seeking to bridge disagreements over how long restrictions would remain on Iran's nuclear program before they are phased out.
The U.S. is seeking to keep the bulk of restrictions in place for 10 years, according to the AP report. But Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the timeframe of the agreement is still being discussed by negotiators.
He also pushed back on the idea that all of the checks on Iran would automatically expire at the end of this period.
"What we are proposing and what we are seeking to achieve is a series of constraints and obligations," he explained. "Some will end after a long period of time, others will continue longer than that, and still others will be indefinite, in perpetuity."
Previously, U.S. officials have said the U.S. is working towards a "double-digit" time frame.
In a briefing in Lausanne Thursday on how and when sanctions against Iran would be phased out, U.S. officials said they didn't expect that Iran would accept a 15-year deal.
But they added that a considerable amount of time, in which Iran would have established a long history of compliance, would have elapsed before the full termination of sanctions would be warranted.
Sanctions have become a key part of the debate in Washington over the Obama administration's negotiations with Iran, as Republican and some Democratic members of Congress have objected to the deal and shown little inclination to lift sanctions legislators have imposed -- a key form of leverage on Iran.
U.S. officials on Thursday sought to allay some of the concerns.
The officials said that sanctions relief would be phrased -- suspended first and repealed later -- in case Iran violates its commitments, and be dependent on benchmarks such as verification by the U.N. nuclear agency.
However, the officials said the U.S. would be prepared to move quickly with relief if Iran moved quickly with compliance, and that they wanted to makes sure there was significant relief without too much delay because if only a little were given done up front, Iran might feel there is no political benefit in a deal.
The officials also described a snap-back mechanism that the U.S. wants to accompany the suspension or termination of U.N. sanctions, which are in addition to those Congress has mandated. One kind of snap-back sanctions would require a U.N. Security Council vote, but officials suggested it might be possible to put a trigger in place, in which a full vote wouldn't be necessary.
The U.S. and its five partners, known collectively as the P5+1, are also emphasizing the need for nuclear inspectors to be given full access to Iranian facilities so they can ensure Iran remains in compliance with the terms of the deal.
"We are pushing tough issues," Kerry told a group of reporters Thursday, but "we are making progress."
Kerry has met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif repeatedly over the past couple weeks in an effort to resolve these obstacles, and other points of contention that stand between them and a deal.