Iran nuclear talks: Why all sides kept positive

The talks Saturday between Iran and six major powers featured the most positive atmosphere in nearly a decade. 

Tolga Adanali/Reuters
Negotiators from Iran and world powers meet in Istanbul for a round of nuclear talks described as 'constructive.'

In the forlorn panoply of Iran's nuclear negotiations with world powers over the years, the positive atmosphere that prevailed during Saturday talks in Istanbul was the best in nearly a decade.

The purpose of these talks – coming after a 15-month hiatus since the failed meeting in January 2011 – was limited to testing Iran's willingness to seriously engage over a nuclear program that has prompted an international crisis.

Both sides have reason to engage: Iran is feeling the pressure of increasingly Draconian sanctions that are damaging its economy, and wants to have them removed while easing the chances of an Israeli or American military strike.

And the so-called P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, England, France, and Germany) represented by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, want to test Iran's own declarations rejecting nuclear weapons as a "sin," want limits on Iran's nuclear work and intrusive inspections, and to avoid a catastrophic war.

The result was 10 hours of intensive talks, in which all sides were determined to ensure a second round to discuss real details, now set for May 23 in Baghdad.

Ashton: talks 'constructive and useful'

Speaking after the talks, Ms. Ashton said they were "constructive and useful," and the start of a "sustained process of serious dialogue."

One senior American official said the Iranians "brought ideas to the table," but that the US would continue its dual-track policy of pressure and diplomacy.

"Dialogue is not sufficient for any sanctions relief," the US official said. "One has to get to concrete actions that are significant."

Perhaps most important to the Iranians may have been the agreement that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is the framework to ensure that Iran's nuclear programs are peaceful.

The NPT, Ashton said, will form "a key basis for what must be serious engagement, to ensure all the obligations under the NPT are met by Iran while fully respecting Iran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy."

Iran: right to enrich

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, made clear that "right" meant that Iran would continue uranium enrichment inside Iran – activities that UN Security Council resolutions currently require suspended until Iran resolves outstanding questions about possible past weapons-related work.

The Europeans and Americans will likewise rely on that formulation to push Iran to accept a most intrusive inspection regime to satisfy themselves Iran is not moving toward a bomb.

"We said that something should be done to gain and obtain the confidence of Iranians," Mr. Jalili told the Monitor in an interview after the talks.

"The important point is that we believe the American people are paying a severe cost for [believing] false and imaginary threats" about the dangers of Iran, said Jalili. War fears have helped boost oil prices, and therefore the price at the pump.

Iran's negotiator: 'great opportunity'

Iran's stated opposition to weapons of mass destruction – including nuclear weapons – is a "great opportunity," Jalili said. The Iranian negotiating team detected significant change at the negotiating table.

"They should not speak to Iranians with the language of threats and a strategy of pressure," Jalili told the Monitor. "We consider it a step forward, and a positive one, when after 15 months they themselves change their attitudes and approach, and say we want to have talks for cooperation."

On the European and American side, there was a belief that it was Iran that had dramatically adjusted its approach. In some previous talks, Iran refused to discuss its nuclear program at all; in January last year, two preconditions imposed by the Iranian side – that the P5+1 accept Iranian enrichment at the outset, and the lifting of UN sanctions – scuttled the talks before an agenda could even be set.

In the new attempts to resolve Iran's nuclear issue, Ashton said, Iran and the P5+1 agreed to be "guided by [a] step-by-step approach and reciprocity."

For Iran that would mean a swift lifting of sanctions with every step that it took. But yesterday US and European diplomats indicated that sanctions processes – including an oil sales embargo, due to fully come into effect on July 1 – will continue.

US skepticism remains

"If you hear skepticism from me, and wariness, we haven't talked to the Iranians for 15 months," said the senior US administration official.

"There is no reason to believe, yet, that we will make all the progress that we want to make," said the US official. "There is reason to believe there is an environment that may be conducive to doing that, but it has not been fully tested yet. We do not yet have those concrete actions-for-actions that have been agreed to, and there is an enormous amount of work ahead.... We have a lot of distrust to overcome on both sides."

The US team was led by US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who in the past was involved in negotiations with North Korea.

One positive Iranian signal before the talks was a profile of Ms. Sherman by the hardline Mashregh News website, which had an "unusually mild" tone, according to a translation by Tehran Bureau. The story said Sherman "is known in diplomatic circles as the 'door opener.'"

Veterans of Iran's past negotiation teams said they could not remember such positive messages, since perhaps the 2003 talks at which Iran agreed with European negotiators to suspend their nascent enrichment program – as they did until 2005.

But that glow from both sides on Saturday was only an opening gambit, said one Iranian diplomat close to the talks. At future sessions, he said, "It is going to be very difficult."

At stake in the second round in Baghdad will be Iran's small but growing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium – which is just a few technical steps off the 90 percent needed for weapons – but which Iran says it is producing because that level is required for fuel for a small reactor in Tehran producing medical isotopes for 800,000 patients.

Iranian officials have said they can limit that 20 percent work once they have enough for the fuel, which the West has not yet agreed to sell to Iran.

Iran has much larger stockpiles of 3.5 percent low-enriched uranium, suitable for fuel for power reactors. The P5+1 will almost certainly try to put caps on that work in any deal.

Khamenei: nukes a sin

One new feature of the talks, and of the European press spin, have been recent statements by Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declaring nuclear weapons a sin.

Ayatollah Khamenei has stated that many times over many years, even issuing a fatwa in 2005 saying that making or stockpiling nuclear weapons was un-Islamic. But until now those declarations have had little apparent effect on US and European decision-makers.

In recent weeks, both US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed hope that nuclear progress with Iran could be built around that official rejection of nuclear weapons.

As Jalili prepared to address a press conference after the talks on Saturday, aides hung a large canvas banner behind the podium, with pictures of five nuclear scientists assassinated in Tehran in the last two years.

Above a map of Iran was written a common official slogan: "Nuclear energy for all; nuclear weapons for none."

Jalili then described the talks as "successful," and noted that Khamenei's fatwa was "welcomed" by the P5+1.

That statement "opposing the use and production of nuclear bombs was highlighted by the other side," said Jalili. "They consider it valuable and it creates an opportunity and capacity for cooperation on international disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation."

Iran's interpretation of the agreed NPT framework was all-inclusive, Jalili added. "Any rights indicated in the NPT should be respected; uranium enrichment is one of these rights that every individual member should benefit from and enjoy for peaceful purposes."

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