Iran and six world powers say they made substantive progress during two days of nuclear talks in Geneva, tentatively breaking 18 months of failure to negotiate limits to Iran’s nuclear program.
But senior American, Iranian, and European officials cautioned that differences remain, even if the tenor and pace of discussions has been transformed by a new Iranian negotiating team.
Iran laid out a new roadmap of what it was willing to do to permanently allay fears that its nuclear program is for more than peaceful purposes. The country also laid out what relief it expects in return from a US-engineered array of global sanctions.
The Geneva nuclear talks are a key test of centrist President Hassan Rouhani, who won a surprise victory in June elections promising to solve the nuclear problem with “transparency,” and ease sanctions that have damaged Iran’s economy.
“I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before,” said a senior US administration official, a veteran of half a dozen such formal rounds of Iran nuclear talks, in a background briefing with reporters. “There is more work – much more work – to do, as we knew there would be,” the official said. “Any agreement has to give the United States and the world every confidence that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Iran and the permanent five members of the UN Security Council (the US, Russia, China, Britain, and France) and Germany – the so-called P5+1 group that has negotiated with Iran since early 2012 – agreed to meet again on Nov. 7-8 in Geneva.
They also agreed not to discuss specific details of the Iranian proposal or the P5+1 reaction to it, clearly aware that fierce critics of any compromise – in Iran among hardliners, and in the US among some in Congress, the pro-Israel lobby, and in Israel itself – are ready to pounce.
“We took a very important step in the talks … some serious give-and-take was exchanged,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who made Iran’s presentation, told journalists after the talks. “This first step … has been taken on a rather difficult road. It needs time, and of course with seriousness, and good will and concrete steps, hopefully we will continue on the road,” Mr. Zarif said.
Zarif said he was “looking at the future with some hope" and said Iran would expect sanctions relief as part of any agreement.
Yet neither Iran nor the P5+1 took concrete steps or made specific commitments in Geneva, which might bolster arguments against domestic critics. Still, analysts noted signs of potential progress – certainly compared to past, painstaking negotiating rounds in Istanbul, Baghdad, Moscow, and Almaty, Kazakhstan.
“The fact that they are on the same page about the structure of the process at this stage is a breakthrough,” says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, after hearing European, Iranian US comments on the talks in Geneva. “Both sides are going to be careful not to overplay it, but I thought it was clear that the Iranians had a more positive and optimistic tone … partly because it is their proposal that is now at the center of negotiations."
“It goes from Step 1 to the last step, which is very different from the [previous P5+1] proposal, which was Step 1, Step 2, and then it was ambiguous. This is critical for the Iranians,” says Mr. Parsi.
The bottom line for the Iranians is to be able to enrich uranium on Iranian soil for peaceful purposes, while removing fears of a bomb effort and lifting sanctions. So far, the US has not stated publicly that uranium enrichment will be permitted in the future on Iranian soil under any circumstances, though Iran already has an industrial capacity to do so.
“We have a long way to go, but the incentive for both sides to actually move forward is probably stronger now than it has been at any of the previous talks, and the cost of failure is also much, much higher for both sides,” adds Parsi.
Not all assessments carried as many cautiously positive notes as the American and Iranian ones. Mr. Rouhani has even spoken of reaching a nuclear deal in three to six months, with implementation within a year.
But Russia, for example, said Iran and the P5+1 remain far apart in their expectations, according to Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. The result was better than previous rounds, “but it does not guarantee further progress, there could have been better cooperation,” Mr. Ryabkov was quoted as saying today by Interfax, according to Reuters.
Ryabkov spoke of “an exceptionally low level of mutual trust” and said the gap between the positions “can be measured in kilometers, while advances forward can be measured in steps – half a meter each,” according to Itar-Tass.
Yet the joint statement by Iran and the P5+1 said Iran’s new proposal was an “outline of a plan as a proposed basis for negotiation” that was “being carefully considered." The statement said that before the next Geneva round, “nuclear, scientific and sanctions experts” from both sides will convene to “address differences and… develop practical steps.”
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton – who leads the talks on behalf of the P5+1 – said after reading the statement that the talks were “very intensive” and “very important.... Our positions have been set out on a number of issues already, and I would say to you that you need to allow us the space to now really have the opportunity to move forward.”
The senior US official noted the change in Geneva. “We are … far apart still on many things,” said the official. “So although we got more today than we’ve ever gotten, there’s a whole lot more that we need to get and probably a whole lot more Iran wants to get from us in understanding what we will do, how we will proceed, how we will respond.”
Zarif said he would be reporting to Tehran that “both sides want to find common ground,” and said he hoped P5+1 diplomats would report to their capitals “the fact that Iran is interested in resolving this issue. We believe there is no reason for the continuation of this problem, there are more important issues that we need to deal with,” he said. He added and that both sides could achieve a peaceful nuclear program “without proliferation concerns.”