PARIS — With time running out on the latest round of negotiations, France and the United States on Wednesday stepped up demands for Iran to prove that its nuclear program is peaceful — or risk scuttling the closest chance for a deal in years and losing a chance to ease crippling sanctions on Tehran's economy.
The entreaty to Iran comes days before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is to meet with top diplomats to Iran and the European Union to discuss how to break the years-long deadlock before a Nov. 24 deadline. Iran is seeking global recognition for its right to generate nuclear power — which it says it will use for energy, medical and other benign purposes — and the removal of at least some Western penalties against its oil and financial sectors.
But much of the rest of the world fears that Tehran, which has hindered fully transparent inspections of its reactors over the years, wants to build an atomic weapon.
"They have a right to a peaceful program but not a track to a bomb," Kerry said after meeting with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. "We believe it is pretty easy to prove to the world that a plan is peaceful."
Fabius called it "very important" for the U.S. and France to keep a united front as the negotiations enter the final stretch.
The French diplomat's comments underscored concerns that Washington could change course on its diplomacy with Iran after Jan. 1, when Republicans will control both houses of Congress. Many Republican leaders have criticized the Obama administration's desire to ease sanctions on Iran while the talks are underway, or to embrace any agreement that would allow Tehran to continue generating nuclear power.
If that's the case, the November deadline may represent the last shot the White House will get at securing a deal with Iran — a major foreign policy legacy issue for President Barack Obama.
Kerry dismissed questions about whether the GOP's command of Congress would derail the nuclear deal, and said the same sticking points would remain no matter which U.S. political party was in power. "I don't believe that changes either side," he said. "I honestly don't."
Congress has very limited power to influence a potential deal. It could refuse to lift sanctions imposed on Iran, but it can't stop the president from suspending or relieving some of the sanctions by executive order.
And, he noted: "As we have learned in the last few years, the minority has enormous power to stop things from happening." Obama's party, the Democrats, will be in the minority in Congress next year.
Kerry also insisted that the U.S. is not prepared to extend the looming deadline, just three weeks away with scant sign of a final agreement. But he left open the possibility if, at the end, the two sides find themselves "inches" away from a resolution that has long bedeviled the international community.
On-and-off negotiations between Iran and world powers have languished for years without resolution, and the last time the two sides came close to a deal was in 2008.
But world powers saw a new opening with the 2013 election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned to end bruising Western sanctions to punish Tehran for its nuclear production.
Israel has also objected to the negotiations, which have become a sore point between Washington and Tel Aviv.
While in Paris, Kerry also met with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh — both of whom have been focused on the stagnant effort to broker a peace agreement between Israel and Palestinian authorities.
Associated Press Television News correspondent Oleg Cetinic in Paris contributed to this report.
Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/larajakesAP