Iran and world powers agreed in Geneva on Thursday to "intensify dialogue" on Iran's nuclear program and other issues, by meeting twice more in October. But though both sides seemed cautiously pleased, their agendas remained far apart.
The first priority of US and other Western officials is to stop – or at least limit – Iran's nuclear progress, with the threat of "crippling sanctions" if Tehran does not comply.
Iran's focus is on a host of broader problems, from security and weapons of mass destruction to economic meltdown and drug trafficking. Its previously released five-page "proposal" to help retool the global order, which the Iranian delegation invoked in Geneva, makes no mention of Iran's nuclear program.
Still, the galvanizing effect of the revelation of a new enrichment facility on the US, Britain, and France to press Iran harder to resolve the nuclear impasse or face more sanctions, seems to have caught the attention of Tehran. Despite a host of internal problems in Iran after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's contested reelection in June, the Iranian team in Geneva appeared engaged to Western negotiators.
Asked if he felt the Iranians understood that this was a "different moment," that it might be "time to talk more," European foreign policy chief Javier Solana replied: "Yes, I think the [Iranian] delegation came knowing it was a different setting than in previous meetings."
Cautioning that the meeting was "only a start" after a 15-month hiatus, Mr. Solana said that the meeting was "enhanced by the full participation" of the United States for the first time.
US Undersecretary of State William Burns held direct discussions with Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili – the highest level of such contact for 30 years – during the meeting between Iran and the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5+1.
Despite that high-profile marker, it had not been clear going into the meeting how much progress would be made since both sides had very different agendas. Critical for Iran was the fact that talks are now set to continue, and that positions that appeared impossible to reconcile – at least according to the sharp rhetoric from both sides beforehand – are now in play.
"Jalili was here to break the ice; I think setting the stage for an Ahmadinejad meeting with Obama or some other big shot," said an Iranian journalist covering the talks in Geneva. "These guys don't have authority ... they just have enough to build the road. Someone else has to drive it home."
"I think they can convince the Americans to reduce their expectations," added the journalist, who asked not to be named.
Iran to open second enrichment facility to inspectors
American expectations were low already, to the point where US officials this week began to speak of President Barack Obama's several overtures to Iran this year in the past tense as a policy effort.
In Geneva, Solana said Iran had pledged to cooperate fully and swiftly with inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog agency of a small, incomplete second uranium enrichment facility revealed in recent days.
Mr. Jalili acknowledged that that facility south of Tehran, near the religious center of Qom, was being built because of the "daily" threats of attack that Iran heard from Israel, the US, and the West against Iran's far larger enrichment facility at Natanz – which is designed to one day house more than 50,000 centrifuges.
After the talks, Jalili said Iran was ready to use its "might and power" to ensure peace in the region, and said Iran's slogan was nuclear "disarmament for everyone, and peaceful nuclear energy for everyone."
He repeatedly said that Iran was subjected to "media terrorism" that unfairly hyped Iran as a threat while neglecting real dangers in the region.
President Obama promised to talk to Iranian leaders, and administration officials briefed before the Geneva meeting said that they would remain flexible to developments.
Solana said the P5+1 also pressed again its freeze-for-freeze plan, in which Iran would halt its uranium enrichment and the building of more centrifuges – already at more than 8,000 – in exchange for no more new sanctions against Iran.
Tehran did not accept the offer last year, but this time had not yet given a "complete answer," Solana said. The European diplomat had been on the phone with the head of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei.
The agency offered Iran a deal to use some of Iran's homemade low-enriched uranium – enriched to just 5 percent, for nuclear fuel – and take it to a third country to be enriched further and returned for use in a small and very old medical research reactor in Tehran that is running out of fuel. Russian news media reported that Moscow had offered to do the enrichment.
Iran's proposal: tactical delay?
The Iranians were evidently pleased by their return to the international stage after the violence that marred the aftermath of the presidential election. Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the talks were "positive" and said they could be boosted to the heads-of-state level of a summit.
But Iran wanted its own proposals – put forward in the five-page letter three weeks ago – to serve as the framework for future talks, though they do not mention Iran's nuclear program.
"Iran's package of proposals is representative of Iran's commitment to continue negotiations," Mr. Mottaki said, speaking in New York as talks wrapped up in Geneva. "We have a concrete, clear agenda and an action plan."
Both sides agreed to meet for a preparatory lower-level meeting, and then a higher level one by the end of the month. How the Iranian proposals will be handled is unclear.
"That letter is typical of their point of view: 'We'll consult about how the world should be governed,'" says Shahram Chubin, a nonproliferation specialist for the Carnegie Endowment based in Geneva.
"I think that some [Iranian diplomats] understand that this is a blatant delaying tactic and doesn't work to their advantage," says Mr. Chubin. "But the ones who are like that are the ones who have been purged [during Ahmadinejad's tenure since 2005]. They are the professional diplomats who see that it doesn't have much mileage. The others are ideologues."