Iran nuclear talks set to start: fresh optimism tempered by rising pressure

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected in June on a promise to change relations with the West. Diplomatic talks Tuesday about the Iran nuclear program will show how much has changed.

Jason DeCrow/AP/File
Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (r.) attend a meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on Sept. 26. More talks begin Tuesday.

What appears to be the best opportunity in years for a diplomatic breakthrough on Iran’s nuclear program gets under way in Geneva Tuesday with talks between Iran and world powers including the United States.

But the much-anticipated first round of negotiations between the two sides since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in June takes place with several clocks ticking.

Those clocks include the counting down of the days until Congress is expected to demand a new round of sanctions targeting Iran’s economy, and the months until Iran is likely to reach a point where it could “break out” and quickly build a nuclear weapon – and they are tempering any optimism that the Geneva talks will open a path to resolving the Iranian nuclear standoff peacefully.

“We are at a diplomatic inflection point: Things could go really well, or they could deteriorate,” says Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Middle East.

Fresh openness on both sides to a diplomatic solution should make it possible to avoid what Dr. Kahl calls the “worst outcomes – an Iranian bomb, or bombing Iran.” But without “real progress” on the diplomatic front relatively soon, “spoilers” on both sides – such as “hard-liners in Iran, policy hawks in Washington” – will ramp up pressure in ways that close the diplomatic window, says Kahl, an associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

As in other negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program during the past decade, this week’s two days of talks will be between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group of countries: the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom – and Germany.

What makes this time different is first and foremost the arrival on the scene of President Rouhani, who was elected pledging to ease the pain of Western sanctions on Iran and who has sounded more flexible than his predecessor about resolving the nuclear standoff. Last month, he talked on the phone with President Obama.

But another factor is that the P5+1 powers have started sounding more reasonable to the Iranians, and that they could accept a deal that allows Iran the civilian nuclear capacity it says it wants. That sentiment has grown in the wake of the Rouhani-Obama phone call – the first conversation between the US and Iranian leaders in more than three decades – and after Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting at the UN with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Iranian officials say they will arrive at the table in Geneva with a three-step plan for building trust between the two sides and convincing the world that Iran’s intentions for its nuclear program are peaceful and not military.

But while the Iranians would not divulge details of their plan – Mr. Zarif tweeted, “No speculations, please” – many Western officials and nuclear experts say the basics of a deal are already clear.

  • Iran would have to cap its enrichment activity at about 5 percent uranium purity, a level sufficient for civilian nuclear purposes.
  • Iran would have to reduce its existing stockpile of low-enriched uranium.
  • Iran would have to substantially reduce its approximately 18,000 centrifuges, the machines that spin uranium to high levels of purity (and potentially to the higher levels required to fuel a nuclear weapon).
  • Closure of Iran’s deep-underground nuclear facility at Fordow might be required.
  •  Iran would be expected to accept the “additional protocol” to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to make much more intrusive inspections of all nuclear sites.

In exchange for accepting such restrictions, Iran is expected to seek immediate relief from the harsh economic sanctions that have devastated its economy – and which most experts agree have caused the economic pain that both elected Rouhani and brought the Iranians to the negotiating table.

This is where Congress comes in. Obama would have to go to Congress to secure any meaningful sanctions relief as part of a nuclear deal, but if anything, Congress seems set on ratcheting up sanctions further, with the Senate considering a new round of House-approved sanctions.

Earlier this month, a senior State Department official who will be in Geneva this week urged the Senate to hold off on any new sanctions until after this week’s meetings. Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of State for political affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that holding up passage of new sanctions would allow her to tell the Iranians in Geneva that “this is your chance” to stave off harsher sanctions with a convincing offer.

For some experts, passage of any new sanctions while the two sides are talking would doom the process. “Any sanctions right as the two sides are testing each other out would be harmful to a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue,” says Mohsen Milani, executive director of the University of South Florida’s center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies.

Iranian “suspicions” of US intentions would only intensify if new sanctions were approved while the talks are under way, said Dr. Milani, speaking in Washington Monday to the National Iranian American Council. New sanctions would be “an attempt to derail the talks,” he said.

That view does not hold sway in Congress, however. If anything, much of Congress appears to favor the thinking of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is a skeptic of the diplomatic path and who favors no easing of sanctions until its nuclear program is fully dismantled.

Mr. Netanyahu will not be part of the talks in Geneva Tuesday, but he is relevant because he holds another one of the clocks that is ticking over the Iranian nuclear standoff: He has said Israel is prepared to “stand alone” and take unilateral action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

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