Thursday's meeting in Geneva on Iran's nuclear program had been framed in such a way that as long as it didn't deteriorate into name-calling and threats it would have been considered a "success." Iran, for its part, had insisted that it wouldn't talk about its own nuclear program ahead of the talks, and hinted instead it was far more interested in regional nuclear disarmament, seeking to put the focus on Israel's possession of nuclear weapons.
But the meeting produced results that far exceeded the low, low expectations that the US and its negotiating partners – Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany – had set for the event: Iran promised to send most of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad.
Iran's current stockpile of LEU is about 3,200 pounds – more than enough, in theory, to be converted into sufficient highly enriched uranium to produce one nuclear bomb. That fact was disclosed earlier this year, creating concerns among the US and other governments that Iran's nuclear program – which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes only – was moving ever closer to nuclear-weapon production.
But in what some commentators are calling a vindication of President Barack Obama's willingness to engage directly with Iran, the country promised at the end of the meeting to send "most" of its existing stockpile of LEU – reportedly about 2,600 pounds of the 3,200-pound total – for processing abroad, according to European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
The fuel would be enriched further in Russia, sent on to France for further technical modifications and then be returned to Iran enriched to a level sufficient to help run its small reactor for producing medical isotopes but well below the level required to make a nuclear bomb.
Iran has agreed 'in principle'
The agreement for now is "in principle" and there are no guarantees that Iran will follow through. But if it does, it will mark the first significant step in at least a decade that the country will have taken away from the capacity to make a bomb. On the US side, the demand that Iran give up its enrichment program entirely before progress can be made appears to have been shelved.
Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan and a sharp Bush critic, borrowed a phrase from online gaming culture in his blog Friday, saying Obama had "pwned" former President Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney with their "axis of evil" rhetoric. (For an interesting side-story on the word 'pwn' and how it came to be, see the Urban Dictionary.)
"Obama... got more concessions from Iran in 7 1/2 hours than the former administration got in 8 years of saber-rattling,'' writes Dr. Cole, though he added "the steps outlined... are only pledges on Iran's part, of course, and we have to see if they are implemented."
Gary Sick, a senior research fellow at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, took a similar view. Dr. Sick, who served on the National Security Council under three US presidents and was the senior White House aide on Iran during the country's 1979 Islamic revolution, wrote that "by all accounts, instead of being a food fight leading to a total breakdown, the Geneva talks were serious, businesslike, and even cordial... this was a historic moment after thirty years of mutual recriminations and hyperbole. "
"Both sides evidently came prepared to behave civilly, to make some small but important concessions, and to initiate a process of negotiation that has been on ice almost since the moment that George W. Bush decided, for arcane reasons of his own, to declare Iran (which had just finished working closely with the United States to establish a new civil government in Afghanistan) a charter member of the Axis of Evil," he wrote.
But he also cautioned, like Solana, that this was only the beginning. "One swallow does not a summer make, and it would be a mistake to think that the results of the Geneva meetings were anything more than the first baby steps along a perilous and unpredictable path," Sick said.
The Wall Street Journal's editorial page was less congratulatory, saying the concessions were "surprisingly modest" and that in exchange a "respectability" was conferred on the Iranian regime that "Mr. Ahmadinejad could only have imagined amid his vicious post-election crackdown."
It also said Iranian commitments should not be trusted. "On long evidence, the regime has no intention of stopping a nuclear program that would give it new power in the region, and new leverage against America."
More details on the enrichment deal
Iran also agreed to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit a recently revealed second uranium enrichment plant near the city of Qom within two weeks. It also promised that its negotiators would meet the US and other members of the so-called P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – before the end of October.
Iran has long insisted that it needed to control its own nuclear fuel cycle since, it said, it couldn't take the chance that foreign powers would cut off its access to the fuel it needs for fuel for its peaceful reactors. A Russian proposal much like the one agreed to on Thursday has been on the table for years without a positive response from Tehran. Citing unnamed US and other Western officials, Reuters reports that the plan "would be a 'confidence-building' gesture that would show that Iran is willing to let its uranium stocks out of the country and be enriched elsewhere."
The fuel would be returned to the Tehran research reactor, which was built in 1967 with American assistance as part of the US "atoms for peace" program. The reactor produces medical isotopes used to treat cancer and other diseases. That facility is monitored by the IAEA, and if the plant is run as planned all the fuel that is to be processed abroad and returned would be used up within about a year. It would also take roughly a year for the uranium to go abroad for processing.
The New York Times extracted an acknowledgment from an unnamed US official that if Iran has secret stockpiles of uranium and secret processing plants, Thursday's accomplishment would be rendered "hollow," as the Times put it.
Will Iran follow through?
The major question for the coming days, as most commentators have pointed out, will be follow-through. Iranian officials have so far not commented on the deal, and if they publicly back away, this could prove to be something of a false dawn. But if implementation is forthcoming, it opens up a host of intriguing questions as to why.
Is President Ahmadinejad responding to criticism from his political opponents and his own establishment that intransigence on the nuclear issue has harmed Iran and isolated it from much of the international community? Were other, private guarantees made in direct talks between chief US nuclear negotiator William Burns and his Iranian counterpart, Saeed Jalili? Was it simply that an emerging consensus among the great powers – with even Russia saying its patience had limits – that more sanctions would be placed on Iran if progress wasn't made by year's end finally forced the Islamic republic's hand?