New Iran nuclear talks: What can West hope to accomplish?

A US official downplays any hope of a breakthrough in talks this week on the Iran nuclear program. Western negotiators are hoping for some gesture of good faith from Iran.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (r.) greets Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief negotiator, in Geneva, the site of talks about the Iran nuclear program Monday.

In talks with Iran this week in Geneva, world powers including the United States are looking for two things: a signal and a commitment.

First, the US and its five partners in the talks that started Monday want a sign from Tehran that it is serious about reducing tensions in the short term to allow for meaningful negotiations on its nuclear program.

And second, the six powers – the US and the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – want a commitment that any long-term negotiations would include Iran’s continuing uranium enrichment.

So far, the talks have gotten the Iranians to agree only to a second day of talks Tuesday – which is one more day than they originally accepted.

In his remarks at the Monday meeting, Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili focused on last week’s car-bombing assassination in Tehran of a top Iranian nuclear scientist, Majid Shahriari. The Iranian side also wants any eventual negotiations to take up broader issues like international terrorism and regional security.

What world powers want from Iran

Iran could give a positive short-term signal by agreeing to a deal that would remove a substantial portion of its low-enriched uranium stockpile and swap it with more-highly enriched fuel Iran needs to run a medical research reactor in Tehran. Such a deal was almost reached last October before disagreement over the timing of a swap scuttled it.

Talks on such a deal could take up in the coming weeks in either Geneva again or in Turkey, some diplomats have suggested.

“A fuel swap deal could be the kind of confidence-building step needed to allow a process of serious negotiating to deepen in the weeks and months ahead,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. “But that [fuel swap deal] alone does not address the issues posed by the Iranian nuclear program.”

The Obama administration has two main “priorities” for substantive negotiations with Iran, Kimball says: one is to limit the growth of Iran’s enrichment capabilities, and the other is to persuade Iran to accept an inspection and verification system on its nuclear facilities that is “far more intrusive and far more effective” than the one the International Atomic Energy Agency currently has operating in Iran.

The point of this week’s talks is to dig out from layers of mistrust to find ways of building confidence, said William Burns, undersecretary of State for political affairs, in congressional testimony last week. “There is still room for a renewed effort to break down mistrust and begin a careful, phased process of building confidence between Iran and the international community,” he said.

Goal: 'confidence in steps'

Undersecretary Burns dismissed any thoughts of a quick breakthrough, saying the initial focus would be on “ways in which we could build confidence in steps.”

The US is talking in terms of a relatively lengthy “process” rather than demanding an immediate solution to Iran’s enrichment program, Kimball says, because intelligence and other indicators suggest that Iran remains at least two years away from being able to build even one crude nuclear weapon. And the intelligence suggests that, if anything, Iran is encountering significant technical difficulties that are slowing its progress, he adds.

Not all nuclear experts agree with Kimball’s time frame. Some put a greater emphasis on Iran’s accumulating stockpile of low-enriched uranium and how, with the right technology, it is already enough to deliver the amount of highly enriched uranium Iran would need for one bomb.

Kimball does not dismiss the long-term challenges posed by Iran’s enrichment program, but he says there’s a reason the administration is downplaying the military option it frequently repeats is on the table.

“They believe in the administration that they’ve got time for the sanctions to bite more,” says Kimball, referring to the sanctions imposed on Iran by the UN Security Council earlier this year. “If they’re not talking about bombing, it’s because they don’t believe they have to.”

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