MUNICH – With an approaching deadline on reaching a nuclear deal with Tehran, Iranian officials on Sunday signaled a willingness to come to an agreement, with Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif telling a gathering of the world's top diplomats and defense officials that "this is the opportunity."
The United States and its five negotiating partners, the other members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, hope to clinch a deal setting long-term limits on Tehran's enrichment of uranium and other activity that could produce material for use in nuclear weapons.
Both sides are under increasing pressure ahead of two deadlines: to agree on main points by late March, and to reach a comprehensive deal by June 30.
Zarif said that now was the window of opportunity to come up with a final deal. He met individually at the Munich security conference with each country involved, except France which was scheduled later Sunday.
"This is the opportunity to do it, and we need to seize this opportunity," he said. "It may not be repeated."
Following a 90-minute morning meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, their second meeting on the sidelines of the conference, Zarif said he felt that progress had been made in the past months and suggested it would be unproductive to further extend negotiations.
"I do not believe another extension is in the interest of anybody," he said. "We're reaching the point where it is quite possible to make an agreement ... and I do not believe anything will be different a year down the road."
The possibility of an agreement with Iran prompted strong words Sunday from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told a weekly Cabinet meeting "we will do everything to thwart a bad and dangerous deal that will cast a dark cloud on the future of the state of Israel and its security."
The U.S. State Department characterized Sunday's discussion between Zarif and Kerry as "constructive." In their meeting on Friday, Kerry pressed Zarif on the Obama administration's desire to meet an end of March target date for the outline of a nuclear agreement.
Iran says its program is solely for energy production and medical research purposes. It has agreed to some restrictions in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from U.S. economic sanctions.
From Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all major decisions, said in a statement on his website Sunday that Iran agrees with Washington that no agreement is better than an agreement that doesn't meet its interests.
Zarif suggested if it took slightly longer to come to an agreement than the set deadlines, it would not "be the end of the world."
Zarif said all sanctions against his country should be lifted, saying that if they had been intended to stop its nuclear ambitions they had failed. He said when sanctions had been imposed, Iran had 200 centrifuges, and "now we have 20,000."
"Sanctions are a liability, you need to get rid of them if you want a solution," he said.