'New chapter' for talks on Iran nuclear program?

Assessments of meetings today between Iran and the IAEA were optimistic, with IAEA officials planning to head to Tehran Nov. 11 to finalize a deal on inspections of key sites.

Hans Punz/AP
Iran's Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Reza Najafi (l.) and IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Safeguards Tero Tapio Varjoranta, deliver a statement after their meeting at the International Center in Vienna, Austria on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013.

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Meetings today between Iranian nuclear negotiators and the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency will continue into tomorrow – the latest "first" in an ongoing push for rapprochement between Iran and the international community.

Almost two years of talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency failed to end a deadlock on an investigation into Iran's nuclear program. The most recent encounters have ended on the first day because the two sides quickly ran out of common ground on inspections.

The IAEA wants to conduct an open-ended investigation into Iran's nuclear program to address suspicions that Iran may have developed nuclear weapons at some point. Iran, however, has insisted on a number of constraints, among them what sites can be inspected and who can be questioned, according to the Associated Press. But speaking to reporters today after a meeting with IAEA head Yukiya Amano, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi promised "new approaches."

Araghchi did not give details about Iran’s position, but in remarks to reporters loaded with optimism, he spoke of a “very useful and constructive meeting” with Amano, and said he was “very hopeful” that the talks on the proposed probe will break “with a good result.”

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Iran and the IAEA "came closer to compromising," and that IAEA officials will travel to Tehran Nov. 11 to finalize an agreement.

" 'Iran presented a new proposal with practical measures as a constructive contribution to strengthen our cooperation,' head nuclear inspector Tero Varjoranta said."

Iran's softening on inspections criteria was hinted at earlier this month, during the Geneva meeting between Iran and world powers. At that meeting, Mr. Araghchi said Iran would allow more stringent inspections.

A key point of contention is the Parchin military base outside Tehran. The international community suspects Iran of conducting nuclear weapons testing there in the past, an accusation Tehran denies. Tehran has refused inspection of the site, insisting it is a conventional military base and that access would threaten national security.

The IAEA meeting comes a week before Iran and six world powers (the so-called P5+1 – the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) reconvene in Geneva to resume talks on curbing Iran's nuclear program. The Associated Press reports that the Vienna meeting with the IAEA could be "interpreted as a symbol of Iranian interest in resolving the impasse on the IAEA probe in parallel with six power talks."

Experts representing Iran and the P5+1 will be meeting in Vienna Wednesday and Thursday to work out "technical details." 

Today's official comments, with their optimistic overtones, jibe with those of both Iran and the international community since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office in August. His time in office has been defined by concerted efforts to move toward rapprochement with the US and world powers – a historic phone call with President Obama, reportedly productive talks on Iran's nuclear program, and efforts to rein in hard-line spoilers.

The Washington Post reports that hardliners received a "rare public rebuke" in the past week when they were ordered to take down anti-US billboards put up only days before.

The billboards, carrying the English-language slogan “The US Government Styles Honesty,” depict a goateed Iranian official (presumably meant to resemble [Iranian Foreign Minister Javad] Zarif) sitting across from a US counterpart who, under the table, conceals symbols of perceived American aggression.

In one, the American is accompanied by an attack dog; in another, he is wearing military fatigues under the table and a coat and tie above it.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about the messages, considering that US flags and effigies of American presidents have been regularly burned in the streets of Tehran during the past 34 years.

But with the anniversary of the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran just a week away, the decision by Tehran’s municipal government to order the removal of the billboards is shocking to some vocal supporters of the nation’s long and proud history of public displays of anti-Americanism. City officials said only that the organization that put up the billboards hadn’t sought permission.

Iran is not the only negotiating party struggling with internal dissent as talks progress. Congress is pushing for another round of sanctions on Iran, despite the Obama administration's request that the House and Senate give an American diplomatic push time to play out, TIME reports.

In July, 130 members of Congress sent President Obama a letter urging him to give diplomacy with Iran a chance. But the following month, the House passed a new round of sanctions against Iran by a vote of 400 to 20, with more than 100 of the members who’d signed the letter encouraging diplomacy voting for the new sanctions.

US negotiator Wendy Sherman made a rare public statement last week urging congressional patience. “Congress has its prerogatives,” she told Voice of America on Friday. “We don’t get to control Congress, but we are having very serious discussions. We work as partners with Congress. They’ve been very effective partners as we’ve tried to approach this negotiation. We need them to continue to be effective partners to reach a successful conclusion, and I have trust that they will be.”

Those in favor of ramping up sanctions on Iran again – most vocal among them the pro-Israel lobby – are pushing for the Senate banking committee to pick up the issue next week when the Senate reconvenes.

If a bill with new sanctions is passed, the Obama administration may be put in the "awkward position" of vetoing sanctions against Iran, TIME reports. It could also opt to "drag its feet" implementing the sanctions.

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