Iran nuclear talks: Can the window stay open long enough for a deal?

Iran and six world powers return to talks Thursday on the country's nuclear program. Despite word that Iran would be ready to put specifics on the table, that doesn’t appear to be the case now.

Vahid Salemi/AP/File
An Iranian technician walks through the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan 255 miles south of the capital Tehran, Iran, in 2007.

As Iran and six world powers return to the negotiating table Thursday to try to find a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Iran’s advancing nuclear program, hard-liners on both sides are pressing positions that could doom the talks.

Yet as Iran continues along a path toward the ability to build a nuclear weapon, officials and nuclear experts caution that the negotiations may represent the last opportunity for resolving the crisis peacefully.

The question now is whether the window for reaching what would be a very complex and sensitive deal will stay open long enough – or whether pressures on both sides will soon push the window shut.

Some in the United States are pressing for another round of sanctions on Iran now – a step that Iranians say would scuttle the talks. On the Iranian side, some hard-liners are blasting their country’s willingness to negotiate a deal as treasonous, while much of the Iranian public wants to see quick relief from the economic sanctions that are weighing increasingly on daily life.

“Our perception is that the Iranians are under time pressure,” says a senior European diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We all know the clock is ticking.”

Negotiators for Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the US, Russia, China, France, and Britain – plus Germany, meet in Geneva Thursday for the second time in less than a month amid mixed signals from Tehran.

Iranians meeting last week at the experts level with their counterparts from the six world powers indicated that Iran would be ready to put specifics on the table this week, some officials from countries involved in the talks say. But on Tuesday, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, said in an interview with a Tehran newspaper that he expects this week’s talks to remain at a broad outline. With “goodwill” from both sides, he added, “within three months we can get to the first step.”

But “getting to the first step” of a comprehensive deal in three months is not likely to cut it with Western powers – and almost certainly not with the US Congress and Israel, which views a belligerent Iran’s nuclear progress as an existential threat.

Under pressure from the White House, the Senate put off voting this week on legislation increasing sanctions on Iran. But senators anxious to follow the House, which already approved a new round of sanctions this summer, appear willing only to hold off until they can see the results of the talks this week in Geneva – not for the 60 days the Obama administration sought.

US partners in the talks have a nuanced view of the impact of congressional pressure for ramping up the sanctions that the Iranians wish dearly to see lifted: Actual passage of new sanctions could scuttle the negotiations, they warn, even as they suggest that the threat of new sanctions is helpful in pressuring the Iranians to make a serious negotiating offer now.

“We consider it would be a mistake [to add new sanctions now]; it would be the best way to destroy any chance of negotiations” succeeding, says the senior European diplomat. On the other hand, the threat of even tougher sanctions serves a purpose, he says, allowing others to warn the Iranians, “Be careful, the American Congress is thinking about adopting new sanctions.”

US officials are talking about a scenario under which a first step would be to address what to the international community are the most worrisome aspects of Iran’s program – its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium, for example, and its deep-underground facility at Fordow, where advanced centrifuges continue to spin. Such a step could provide some breathing room for reaching a comprehensive agreement down the road.

Obama administration officials including the chief American negotiator, Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, talk about accepting some “reversible” sanctions relief in exchange for the initial steps Iran would be required to take. But they insist that no substantial lifting of sanctions would occur until Iran takes verifiable and permanent steps to block its path to a nuclear weapon.

But reaching the “comprehensive agreement” that would include such irreversible steps on both sides is many months off at best – and even the cautious optimists on the chances of reaching a deal are uncertain the window for negotiations will remain open that long.

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