Surprise Iran nuclear talks: Why US sends in top US-Iran dealmaker

With Iran nuclear talks sputtering, both the Obama administration and Tehran worry that scant progress could spur the US Congress to impose damaging new sanctions on Iran.

Kim Hong-Ji/AP/File
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, here talking in Seoul, South Korea, on Jan. 21, is leading a team to conduct surprise, two-day talks with Iran in Geneva over curtailing its nuclear program.

The US State Department has dispatched its No. 2 diplomat to surprise talks with senior Iranian officials in Geneva, an indication of the Obama administration’s growing concerns over lack of progress in international talks on curtailing Iran’s nuclear program.

With a July 20 deadline for reaching a comprehensive deal with Iran approaching, Deputy Secretary William Burns joins two other senior US officials – Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Jacob Sullivan, Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser – in two days of talks that got under way Monday.

The US-Iran talks announced over the weekend came as a surprise, since the negotiations between Iran and six world powers, including the US, are to resume next week. The inclusion of Secretary Burns in this week’s discussions is what added a note of urgency.

It was Burns who held secret talks with Iranian officials in 2013 that provided the breakthrough that allowed world powers and Iran to reach an interim deal last November. The Burns message to Iran in the secret conversations was basically this: that the US would accept an Iranian nuclear program with some domestic enrichment as long as the international community could verify with certainty that Iran could not assemble the building blocks of a nuclear weapon.

That bargain allowed for an interim agreement calling for six months of negotiations for reaching a comprehensive nuclear accord. Secretary Sherman leads the US delegation to the international talks with Iran, while Mr. Sullivan was also part of some of last year’s secret US-Iran discussions.

But now, with just over a month left before the July 20 deadline, talks appear to have stalled. If anything, Iran seems to be adding new demands for reaching a deal – even though a toughened stance from Tehran would likely encourage the US Congress to renew its push for additional sanctions on Iran. Existing international sanctions have already dented Iran's economy, while both Iranian officials and the Obama administration have said adding more sanctions now could end diplomatic efforts to limit Iran's nuclear program.

The Obama administration’s response: Diplomat Burns – he with experience in pressing the Iranians for compromises – to the rescue.

One key issue to be hammered out between the two sides is how many centrifuges Iran would continue to operate, and how much enriched uranium those centrifuges would produce. Another major concern for international powers is Iran’s demand in the May talks in Vienna that it be allowed to produce its own enriched uranium to fuel the new Bushehr nuclear reactor.

The Bushehr reactor was built by Russia under a contract that calls for Russia to supply the reactor’s fuel for 10 years. Some diplomats and critics of the Iran nuclear program have said Iran’s Bushehr request is a nonstarter, because it would mean allowing Iran to produce too much enriched uranium that could be further enriched to produce fuel for a nuclear bomb before the international community had time to react.

Another outstanding issue is the duration of any comprehensive agreement. Iran is apparently seeking a much shorter agreement – reportedly as brief as three years – than the US and other international powers.

The interim agreement does allow for an extension of talks for six additional months, but some diplomatic analysts believe an extension would be the equivalent of a death knell for the diplomatic path with Iran.

With midterm elections approaching, a Congress that is largely dubious of the Obama administration’s diplomatic initiative with Iran would very likely move to impose new economic sanctions on Iran if the July 20 deadline arrives with only scant progress.

As part of the interim agreement, Iran agreed to several confidence-building measures in exchange for some easing of international trade restrictions and a commitment from world powers not to impose new sanctions during the talks. Iran has already said new sanctions would cause it to walk away from the nuclear talks.        

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