Inklings of a deal on Iran's nuclear program

Substantial talks between Iran and six world powers began with signs of hope for rapid progress. Even though the sides are far apart, the world must support these war-averting negotiations.

AP Photo
The European Union's Catherine Ashton talks to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif prior to nuclear talks in Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday.

Ask a globe-trotting diplomat these days where war may erupt and they usually cite two possibilities: a Japan-China clash over a few islands or a Middle East firestorm after an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear plants.

Guess which hot spot may be cooling off?

China and Japan are barely talking about their risky feud. But for two days this week, Iran held substantial negotiations with six world powers over its nuclear program (with the United States effectively acting as a proxy for Israel).

On the surface, these initial talks, held in Geneva, went far better than previous attempts to end the threat of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The tone was cordial and the smiles wide. Both sides spoke in English to speed things up. The US negotiator even had one hour alone with her counterpart. No one leaked key information to the media. Enough progress was made that there was a joint statement after this first round. The two sides agreed to meet again in three weeks.

More substantially, they did not simply present small or vague ideas. They offered comprehensive and clear ways to ratchet back the stiff sanctions on Iran in return for concessions on its nuclear program. The first few building blocks of trust were taken for granted. The endgame was put in sight.

Both Iran and the US seem in a hurry to discover each other’s bottom line on core issues.

President Obama wants to prevent Iran from further progress in uranium enrichment, which could soon allow it to assemble a bomb. Unlike his predecessor, he does not insist there could be no enrichment. He also wants to keep the talks from becoming campaign fodder in the 2014 US elections.

Iran’s clerical leaders face rising dissent over a worsening economy, reflected in the surprise election last June of a moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as president. Ayatollah Khamenei appears in a hurry to end Iran’s isolation. He has shifted his stance toward the US by calling for “heroic flexibility” by Iran in the negotiations.

After years of hiding many of its nuclear activities, Iran has the most to prove. It must show it can be trusted to implement a final deal and live up to its purported claim of seeking only peaceful nuclear power. For his part, Mr. Obama must prove to Iran that he will reduce the sanctions and prevent an Israeli attack even as Iran curbs its nuclear ambitions.

The trade-offs by each side will be as difficult as the sequencing of each step.

Over many years, the world has steadily united in pressuring Iran to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East or to not give cause for Israel to launch a preemptive attack. The fruits of that steadfastness have paid off so far, if these opening talks are any indication.

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