Why US says optimism on Iran nuclear talks is 'way out of control'

The Iran nuclear talks starting Wednesday involve a long list of very complex issues and varying perspectives. So despite some promising signs, officials are wary of building up expectations.

Ronald Zak/AP
European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, left, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif, right, wait for the start of closed-door nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria, Wednesday. The talks between Iran and six world powers have entered an ambitious new stage with the two sides sitting down to start drafting the text of a final deal.

With six world powers and Iran opening talks Wednesday aimed at reaching a comprehensive plan to strictly limit Iran’s nuclear program, US officials have been busy dampening growing expectations that an accord can be reached by a mid-summer deadline.

On the eve of the opening session of negotiations in Geneva, a senior US official compared the intricate talks to solving a Rubik’s Cube and warned that recent widespread optimism that an accord can be reached by the July 20 deadline was overblown.

“We want to get [a comprehensive agreement] done by July 20. It is possible to get it done. But … you can get 98 percent of the way there, and if the last 2 percent cannot get agreed to, there will be no comprehensive plan of action,” the senior US official told reporters in a pre-talks briefing Tuesday.

“I’ve read a lot of what you all have written about how optimistic everyone is,” the official said, “and I think it’s gotten way out of control.”

Why the effort to squelch the optimism that has grown in recent weeks as the interim agreement reached last November has been implemented and talks among technical experts have progressed?

Part of the explanation is diplomatic realism. The reality is that the talks involve a long list of very complex issues and varying perspectives – everything from the number of uranium-spinning centrifuges Iran would be allowed to how quickly the sanctions gripping Iran’s economy would be lifted.

But other reasons are more political.

On one hand, the Obama administration wants to project an image of toughness to counter Republican critics who doubt President Obama’s resolve on Iran. Officials repeat that the administration prefers no deal to a bad deal that leaves the door open to Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Yet failure to reach an accord in July after so much optimism – and only months before the US midterm elections – would be a blow to Mr. Obama’s foreign policy pursuits. It would very likely revive partisan assertions that the talks did nothing but allow Iran more time to pursue its nuclear ambitions.

The interim deal reached last year between Iran and six powers – the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany – does allow the July 20 deadline to be extended by six months. But the midterm elections would make an extension a potential political liability for Mr. Obama and the Democrats, some political analysts say. 

Another variable is Israel. Obama and the Western powers in the talks want to convince Israel that the central requirement of the Geneva negotiations is to ensure that Iran can never build the bomb – or use the talks to hoodwink the world.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius underscored France’s “firmness” in a recent address to the American Jewish Committee in Washington. “As far as Iran is concerned, yes to civilian nuclear power, no to the atomic bomb,” Mr. Fabius said.

He emphasized that France held up approval of the November interim agreement until Iran suspended “its most problematic activities.” That firmness won French President François Hollande something of a hero’s welcome when he visited Israel last November.

All this toughness may be a way of preparing the public for the possibility that the complex talks fail.

Perhaps Iran will dig in its heels and insist on continuing to operate the Arak heavy water research reactor, which nuclear experts worry could be tapped to build a plutonium-fueled bomb. Or perhaps Iran will not want to dismantle as many of its 10,000 centrifuges as world powers demand. Or perhaps, in an attempt to strike a “transparent” and “verifiable” accord, world powers will demand more intrusive inspections than Iran is willing to accept.

If the talks do end up at an impasse, discussions will shift once again to the option that is not part of the Geneva talks – military strikes.

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