MONTREUX, Switzerland (AP) — As U.S. and Israeli officials sparred in Washington over the wisdom of a nuclear deal with Iran, negotiations on a potential agreement resumed Monday, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying the sides are still far apart and warning Israel's leader that leaks about the talks will hurt their chances for success.
Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif sat down in the Swiss resort town of Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline for their sixth round of discussions this year. They face an end-of-March target to reach the outline of a deal that would eliminate Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons over the length of the agreement in exchange for sanctions relief.
The stakes have been raised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who adamantly opposes the deal and will address a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday about the dangers it poses to Israel and others. The Obama administration has sought to blunt that criticism and on Monday stressed its commitment to Israel's security.
In Geneva, Kerry defended Israel at the U.N. Human Rights Council, pledging that the United States would continue to oppose anti-Israel action and bias at the United Nations and elsewhere. The U.S. envoy to the U.N., Samantha Power, made similar remarks in Washington to the American Israel Public Affairs Council, where President Barack Obama's national security adviser Susan Rice was expected to echo those sentiments later Monday.
The behind-the-scenes action driving the public rhetoric in Washington, however, was in Montreux where Kerry, Zarif and their teams were meeting.
Pushing back against the content of Netanyahu's expected speech, Kerry maintained that the United States would never allow Iran to get the bomb. And, he insisted, in a jab at Netanyahu, that critics of the emerging deal were wrong and should not publicize details of the as-yet incomplete agreement as senior Israeli officials have said the prime minister will do.
"Right now, no deal exists, no partial deal exists," he told a news conference in Geneva. "And unless Iran is able to make the difficult decisions that will be required, there won't be a deal. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That is the standard by which this negotiation is taking place, and anyone who tells you otherwise is simply misinformed."
That said, he suggested that revealing details of any preliminary understandings with Iran could be fatal to the goal of a diplomatic resolution to fears of a nuclear-armed Iran.
"We are concerned by reports that suggest selective details of the ongoing negotiations will be discussed publicly in the coming days," Kerry said. "I want to say clearly that doing so would make it more difficult to reach the goal that Israel and others say they share in order to get a good deal."
"Israel's security is absolutely at the forefront of all of our minds, but frankly, so is the security of all the other countries in the region, so is our security in the United States," he added.
Reflecting U.S. concerns about Netanyahu's impending congressional speech, Kerry's comments were unprompted by any reporters' question.
The Montreux talks are expected to last until Wednesday and will be underway when Netanyahu delivers his speech.
Among unresolved issues meant to be part of an agreement is a ruling by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency on whether Iran worked on nuclear arms in the past.
Tehran denies that but the agency says it has information suggesting such activity. It has remained essentially stalemated for a decade, however, in attempts to follow up on its suspicions. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano showed some exasperation Monday with Iran's refusal to cooperate with his probe, telling reporters outside a 35-nation IAEA board meeting that "not engaging with us is not a solution."
Noura Maan contributed to this report from Vienna.