The United States and five other world powers met Tuesday in Geneva for talks on Iran's nuclear program in the hope Tehran is willing to open up its program to inspectors to verify that it is not pursuing an atomic bomb.
The talks are the first test of Iran's recent overtures to the West, which has maintained economic sanctions on Iran to get it to come to the table. New Iranian President Hasan Rouhani agreed to talks following a phone conversation with President Obama.
Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said Iran presented the ideas in PowerPoint format. Mann said there was a sense of "cautious optimism" ahead of the two-day meeting and that Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Tehran's chief negotiator, dined together Monday evening in a "very positive atmosphere".
Though some analysts say there is room for optimism, a series of recent statements from Iran have clouded Rouhani's rosy message that his country is ready to make concessions in talks in Geneva.
Iran's negotiator has been pre-emptively rejecting ideas from the West to ensure Iran's nuclear stockpiles are not converted to weaponry. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei contradicted Rouhani's claims of flexibility in talks, and Zarif has said Iran's right to enrich uranium is "non-negotiable."
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a group that has opposed broad sanctions against the Islamic regime and a military option against Iran's nuclear program, insists however that talks have the best chance at success since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran 31 years ago.
"Never before has the atmosphere been so optimistic," Parsi said.
Colin Kahl, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Middle East, was less optimistic, saying talks "could go really well, or things could deteriorate."
The U.S., Israel and others say Iran is working toward making an atomic bomb, and some estimates have it reaching that goal within months. Iran insists its nuclear work is for peaceful purposes, but it refuses to abide by its international pacts to allow inspectors to enter its facilities and verify its intentions.
Sanctions imposed by the U.S., Germany and others have harmed the Iranian economy, but have yet to force it to soften its stance. Senior Iran negotiator Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi announced Sunday that Iran will not ship its nuclear stockpile to another country as part of any deal, a top idea of the West.
"We will negotiate about the volume, levels and the methods of enrichment, but shipping out the (enriched) material is a red line for Iran," Araqchi said.
On top of that, Zarif announced that the U.S. and other world powers should produce new proposals for the nuclear talks. Past proposals made by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the USA, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China — plus Germany "belong to history, and they must enter talks with a new point of view," Zarif said.
"The players must put away this illusion that they can impose anything on the Iranian people," he said.
Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed Zarif's suggestion. Meanwhile, the Iranian newspaper Kayhan reported that Khamenei regarded Zarif's one-on-one meeting with Kerry in New York recently and Rouhani's call with Obama as "missteps."
Israel says in the face of Iran's machinations the West must maintain and even strengthen sanctions.
Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who was in the USA recently to persuade Washington and the International Monetary Fund to strengthen the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table, argued that talks alone will not prevent Iran from getting a bomb.
Economic pressure should be accompanied with a real military threat to be most effective, he told USA TODAY. "Syria is an analogy for Iran," he said. "Diplomacy only happens when there's a real valid military threat."
Lapid said Iran should prove its program is peaceful by dismantling its centrifuges and plutonium reactor, programs that produce nuclear fuel.
"If they do those two things, we should talk" about reducing sanctions, Lapid said. "If not, the sanctions should be toughened, and it will threaten the very existence of the regime itself."
Israel's Diplomatic-Security Cabinet released a statement to the negotiators on Tuesday insisting that Iran has no right as it claims to enrich uranium and is almost certainly doing so to make nuclear bombs as North Korea has done.
"A country that regularly deceives the international community, that violates U.N. Security Council resolutions, that participates in the slaughter of civilians in Syria and that promotes terror worldwide, has no such right," the cabinet said.
Israel views Iran's nuclear program as a threat to its own existence given the remarks often made by Iran's Muslim clerical leaders that the Jewish state must be eliminated.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel will act militarily if Iran approached the level of enrichment needed for a bomb though it does not oppose Iran having a peaceful nuclear energy program.
"But as has been demonstrated in many countries, from Canada to Indonesia, peaceful programs do not require uranium enrichment or plutonium production. Iran's nuclear weapons program does," the cabinet statement said.
Israel called on the international community not to reach a partial agreement that would fail to bring about the full dismantling of the Iranian military nuclear program and at the same time could lead to the collapse of the sanctions regime.
"Iran believes it can get by with cosmetic concessions that would not significantly impede its path to developing nuclear weapons, concessions that could be reversed in weeks. In exchange, Iran demands an easing of the sanctions, which have taken years to put in place," it said.
Zarif posted a message on his Facebook account Tuesday saying the Geneva talks were the start of a difficult and relatively time-consuming way forward.
"I am hopeful that by Wednesday we can reach agreement on a road map to find a path towards resolution. But even with the goodwill of the other side, to reach agreement on details and start implementation will likely require another meeting at ministerial level."