U.S. and Iranian officials are praising nuclear talks in Geneva this week as a key diplomatic success, but the problems that torpedoed previous efforts to win guarantees from Iran that it will not seek the bomb appear undiminished.
These problems could delay the first concessions from either side, raising the possibility of a backlash against negotiators from hardline elements both in the United States and Iran who could seek to sabotage the talks.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), a strong advocate of sanctions against Iran, said in a statement Wednesday: “Given Iran’s continued refusal to halt its illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the Senate should immediately move forward with a new round of economic sanctions targeting all remaining Iranian government revenue and reserves.”
An increase in sanctions could anger the Iranians, said Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Geneva.
U.S. and European sanctions have already devastated the Iranian economy, slashing oil sales by more than half and crippling Iran’s trade and international banking sectors.
Meanwhile, Israel is warning that Iran is using the talks to delay action against it while continuing to expand its nuclear program so it can “break out” and build a bomb before the West can react.
In contrast with that sort of confrontation, the atmosphere in Geneva was a festival of good will. Discussions with Zarif and his team were conducted in English, unlike previous sessions, where a Farsi-language translator was used.
The delegates from the six nations negotiating with Iran—Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States—commiserated with Zarif about his bad back and swapped stories about back problems, a senior U.S. official said.
The official, who has negotiated with Iran for two years, said: “I have never had such intense, detailed straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before …We are beginning that kind of negotiation to get in a place where you might possibly have an agreement.” In addition, Zarif and European union representative Catherine Ashton, who led the talks, issued a joint statement at the end of the meeting to show how closely they were working together.
But despite such hints of progress—and hopes raised by diplomatic breakthroughs in September in New York, where President Obama spoke by phone with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the first such high-level contact since the Islamic revolution in 1979—the talks in Geneva on Tuesday and Wednesday failed to make concrete headway.
The intractable issues that have sabotaged diplomacy for years remain, including how much sanctions relief Iran would get from suspending medium-level uranium enrichment and whether it would win assurances to be allowed to enrich uranium in any final deal.
Uranium is enriched to make fuel for power reactors, but the same process also is used to make the explosive core of atom bombs. Iran has more than 6 tons of low enriched uranium, suitable for power reactor use, but that uranium could be enriched further to make enough weapon-grade material for more than five atomic bombs.
The U.S. official stressed that the U.S. delegation’s expectations for the meeting were not high: “This is hard. We are far apart still on many things.” Geneva is the “beginning of a process” that is “highly technical” and not the end, where a breakthrough would be expected.
On a positive note, diplomats said there was more detailed and serious discussion in Geneva than in all the previous meetings with Iran since 2002, when the Islamic Republic was discovered hiding work on uranium and plutonium, the two routes to making an atomic bomb, officials said.
But a long-awaited Iranian proposal turned out to be more a statement of intention than a precise road map for how to resolve the nuclear crisis. Said the U.S. official: “What Iran did is give us...what they think is an approach that will work.”
So the detailed work remains to be done. And there things did not look as rosy as the better diplomatic atmosphere.
“There will be no agreement overnight…Any agreement has to give the United States and the world every confidence that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon,” the U.S. official said.
Zarif, who arrived at the press conference after the talks in a wheelchair, suffering from back spasms, said he hoped the talks would be the beginning of a “new phase” toward resolving “an unnecessary crisis and opening new horizons.”
The foreign minister reiterated, however, Iranian positions which the United States opposes as strategically, and not just tactically, unacceptable. Zarif said: “steps need to be balanced,” code for saying Iran should get significant sanctions relief for abandoning 20 percent enrichment, a medium level closer to weapon-grade of more than 90 percent enriched.
The U.S. says Iran should suspend the 20 percent enrichment as a confidence-building measure before sanctions begin to be unwound.
Zarif said there was a lack of trust from the United States that was unwarranted and that Iran has already taken a step forward by attending the talks.
But the United States sees a possible Iranian atomic bomb as a national security threat and wants to see actions by Iran to rein in its nuclear program rather than just words.
Zarif also said Iran was not ready to enforce an “additional protocol” for more intrusive United Nations inspections of its nuclear program. Enforcing this protocol is a basic demand of the Americans to assure greater transparency from the Iranians.
The six world powers and Iran are to meet again in Geneva November 7 and 8, a rapid turnaround in an effort to make progress quickly, the U.S. official said.