GENEVA — A senior Obama administration official cautioned Monday that "no one should expect a breakthrough overnight" in international talks that begin here Tuesday on Iran's disputed nuclear program, despite rising hopes of a diplomatic solution.
As negotiators from six world powers and Iran gathered for two days of talks, the official told reporters that although Iran has given encouraging signs that it is ready compromise, any search for a solution will be "very, very difficult.... We know that the road will have bumps in it."
"The chances of an agreement being reached in two days are quite low," said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks. "This is complicated work."
The official was seeking to adjust expectations at a time when developments have suggested that Iran and the West may be on the verge of a compromise after 10 years of stalled negotiations. After two months of overtures, President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by telephone Sept. 27 about their desire to resolve the long nuclear impasse, and possibly to improve relations.
The official acknowledged that in the last three weeks the Iranians have not provided any further details of the diplomatic plan that they broadly outlined at the United Nations meetings in New York last month. U.S. officials asked during the U.N. meetings that the Iranians provide more details so the United States and the other participants could better respond at this week's talks.
The six world powers — the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — are seeking a compromise that will provide assurances that Iran's nuclear program is not aimed at developing a nuclear weapon, as many countries fear. Iran wants a deal to ease economic sanctions that global powers have imposed as punishment, but is also seeking to retain as much of its nuclear complex as it can.
Iranians have been giving signs in recent days that they are ready for a sweeping new effort to reach a deal — but that they remain unwilling to put tough limits on a nuclear program that many Iranians consider a national treasure.
Officials quoted in Iran's state-controlled media are saying they are ready to halt the production of medium-enriched uranium, a material that can be relatively easy to convert for use as bomb fuel. But they are also insisting that Iran won't halt production of low-enriched uranium, and that the country won't close its underground enrichment facility at Fordow, or the Arak heavy-water plant that critics fear is intended to open the way to a plutonium-based nuclear weapon.
Abbas Araghchi, Iran's deputy foreign minister and a key nuclear negotiator, was quoted by the Iran Student News Agency as saying that the negotiating team will offer a three-part program that lays out a "road map" for resolving the contentious issue. Araghchi said the long-term plan was intended to gradually build trust on both sides, and would require the West to ease the punishing economic sanctions.
An account carried by the Iran Student News Agency quoted officials saying Iran wouldn't demand upfront guarantees of what it insists is its right to enrich uranium. But the six nations involved in the talks would have to acknowledge that they would support low-level enrichment at the end of negotiations if all went well, officials were quoted as saying.
Although Iran continues to refuse to send any enriched uranium outside the country, it is willing to grant the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency more access to its nuclear facilities, news agencies reported. The Iranians also signaled that they are willing to deal directly with the United States.
With these statements, Iranian officials "may be setting up their red lines for the talks," said Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In another sign of the cross pressures on the negotiators, a bipartisan Senate group urged Obama in a letter Monday not to prematurely ease sanctions on Iran, and to make a "convincing threat of the use of force" as negotiations continue.
The group said that if Iran halted enrichment in a verifiable way, the United States should agree not to impose additional sanctions. But the group didn't favor easing existing sanctions.
Times staff writer Richter reported from Geneva and special correspondent Mostaghim from Tehran.