On the eve of critical nuclear talks in Geneva, both Iran and the United States are seeking to lay a foundation for progress and flexibility, while vowing to “test” the seriousness of the other side.
At stake for the US and five other world powers is striking a deal that limits Iran’s nuclear program, so that it can only ever produce electricity and not bombs.
At stake for Iran is lifting a host of sanctions that have crippled its economy, while also proving to hard-line critics that the diplomacy embraced by newly elected President Hassan Rouhani can bear fruit.
Since early 2012, such high-level nuclear talks have failed repeatedly to bridge differences between Iran and the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany).
But the Geneva meeting is the first since the June election of the centrist President Hassan Rouhani, who has promised to swiftly “remove any and all reasonable concerns” about Iran’s nuclear program. He capped an Iranian charm offensive with a phone call with President Barack Obama last month – the first between US and Iranian presidents in a generation.
“I’m not pessimistic about this round of talks,” said Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif upon arrival in Geneva on Monday night. “But I need to see the good intentions and the political will of the other side in action. If this will exists, we can reach a solution in the foreseeable future.”
A similar message came from a senior US official, who said the P5+1 expected Mr. Zarif to build on the “thoughtful presentation” he gave to ministers in New York last month.
“We are ready to listen to it, and to go to work if it is substantive and concrete,” said the senior Obama administration official in a background briefing with reporters. “At the same time, we go into these meetings clear-eyed about the fact that we have very, very difficult work to do…. No one should expect a breakthrough overnight. These issues are too complicated. And as the president said, the history of mistrust is very deep.”
Past negotiations have foundered at the table in Istanbul and Baghdad, in Moscow and Kazakhstan, in a diplomatic game of chicken that witnessed disagreement on everything from the next venue of talks to who should blink first and take the first and most significant steps.
Neither Iran nor the P5+1 have yet articulated what they see as the endgame, beyond Iran demanding that its “right” to enrich be acknowledged and sanctions be removed, and the P5+1 insisting at first on complete halt to enrichment and substantial dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program. And hovering in the wings are those who despise diplomacy and demand victory for their side, and surrender for the other.
That role was played today by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who has claimed that despite Mr. Rouhani’s “sweet talk” he is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
"It would be a historic mistake to ease the pressure on Iran a moment before the sanctions achieve their objective," Mr. Netanyahu said. To do so would strengthen Iran’s "uncompromising elements" and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei "will be perceived as the winner."
In Geneva, Zarif said he wanted to move beyond previous “lose-lose” nuclear talks to find a “win-win” solution. He said he will propose a three-step plan, with a first step that could be completed in less than two months. Zarif said Iran wants to normalize its nuclear dossier – removing it from the purview of the UN Security Council – within a year.
Iran has long signaled it is willing to halt or curb its most sensitive nuclear work and limit its capacity to enrich uranium – the process that creates nuclear fuel, and when purified to a higher level, the material for atomic bombs. In return it expects a substantial reduction of sanctions.
But it is not yet clear how much sanctions relief the P5+1 is ready to provide as an incentive, and whether it will meet Iranian expectations. The senior US official said, “we are quite ready to move,” depending on the offer presented by Iran. Two top US officials dealing with Iran sanctions are for the first time part of the American delegation.
“Quite crucial” to any sanctions relief, said the US official, “is that it be targeted, proportional to what Iran puts on the table. I’m sure they will disagree with what is proportionate, but we are quite clear about what the menu of options are.”
Iran is concerned that it will make hard-to-reverse changes to its nuclear program – such as converting its current stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity into oxide for fuel – though receive only limited sanctions relief in return, while US, UN and European sanctions can be reversed with the stroke of a pen or a vote.
The P5+1 is likewise concerned that Iran will play out a negotiating process while continuing to advance its nuclear capacity, until it is within easy reach of a “breakout” capacity to race for a nuclear weapon, if it chose to do so.
“Significant and enduring relief from US sanctions would require the administration to convince a skeptical US Congress that a final nuclear settlement would be
meaningful and verifiable. This is not likely to happen anytime soon,” notes a report this week by former US officials Elizabeth Rosenberg and Colin H. Kahl, now both at the Center for a New American Security.
“At the same time, Iran cannot be expected to make significant concessions in negotiations or implement meaningful constraints on its nuclear program unless it receives meaningful relief from the sanctions,” adds the report.
Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association in Washington calls for no new sanctions now – which are currently under consideration by Congress -- even if little progress registers in Geneva.
“The purpose of the sanctions effort has been to alter Iran’s cost-benefit calculations about agreeing to limit its nuclear program – and they have,” wrote Mr. Kimball in a report last week. “Skeptics of a negotiated solution must recognize the reality that the alternative course – further sanctions and possible military strikes – cannot effectively stop Iran’s dangerous nuclear pursuits.”
Pitfalls and moderation
Those pitfalls define the risks of failure for diplomats in Geneva, as negotiations commence in a new and uncharted Rouhani era of proclaimed “moderation” and “transparency.”
The P5+1 proposal put on the table last spring in Almaty, Kazakhstan, is still the starting point for the US and others. It requires Iran to halt uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity, which is a few technical steps from bomb-grade; to make a deeply buried facility inoperable; and to accept more intrusive inspections.
In exchange, Iran would get an easing of sanctions on dealing in petrochemicals and precious metals like gold, but not from the key petroleum, banking and financial sanctions that have most damaged its economy.
That P5+1 offer is “balanced and reasonable,” said the US official. Iran rejected it as one-sided.
“It’s on the table. If the Iranians come with a proposal that builds on that, and expands on what Iran wants, of course we will work with that,” said the senior US official. “We are open to Iran’s ideas about how to proceed forward, and we will take both our proposal, their ideas, and see if we can move this process ahead.”