A long-awaited meeting with Iran on its disputed nuclear program ended without visible progress on Tuesday, dealing a stinging setback to the Obama administration’s strategy built on patient diplomacy and tough economic sanctions.
U.S. and European officials had portrayed the two days of meetings as a test of whether the Islamic Republic would consider limits on an atomic research program that many nations fear is aimed at developing a nuclear weapon.
Iran agreed to meet again next month in Istanbul, Turkey, but showed no interest in curbing its nuclear research — and it rebuffed a U.S. invitation to a formal bilateral meeting with American officials.
After what one senior diplomat, characterizing the talks Monday and Tuesday, called “very difficult discussions,” Tehran’s chief delegate, Saeed Jalili, announced that Iran wouldn’t even discuss halting uranium enrichment at the upcoming Istanbul gathering.
The Geneva meetings appeared to have yielded less than the last time Iran and the six involved world powers met, in October 2009, when Iran and the other participants worked out an agreement that would have limited Tehran’s access to its enriched uranium in exchange for help with fuel for a medical reactor. That deal fell apart within weeks.
Washington’s current approach to Iran calls for outreach combined with tough economic sanctions.
But Tuesday’s outcome has cast doubt on two premises of the administration’s strategy: that economic sanctions can pressure Iran to curb the program and that the U.S. and its allies can persuade the Iranians through diplomacy to bargain away their nuclear card, said Ray Takeyh, a former administration advisor on Iran now with the Council on Foreign Relations.
The administration’s strategy “has met a test, and thus far it hasn’t distinguished itself,” Takeyh said.
The lack of results in Geneva is also likely to bring new pressure on the Obama administration from those — including lawmakers from both parties — who worry that its “strategic patience” may not prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
The six nations negotiating with Iran — China, Russia, the U.S., France, Germany and Britain — have been trying to resurrect talks with Tehran since they were broken off 14 months ago. They would like to persuade Iran to begin phased talks aimed at offering Tehran economic and diplomatic benefits in return for concessions on the nuclear program.
The United Nations Security Council imposed a fourth round of sanctions on Iran in June. In July, the U.S., the European Union and other American allies imposed additional sanctions.
Diplomats said the two sides spent most of their time this week in Geneva talking about the nuclear issue, even though some Iranian officials had said in advance that they wouldn’t discuss it. But Western officials were unable to persuade the Iranians to commit themselves to an agenda in Istanbul centered on the nuclear program, diplomats said, and some officials added that they were worried Iran was just seeking delays.
But Western diplomats also claimed some headway, noting that there were earlier concerns that Iran might not come to Geneva at all, or would focus only on other issues, such as Tehran’s complaints about Israel’s nuclear program.
“All in all, I would say this is a start,” a senior Obama administration official said. “We never expected to be able to judge progress based on this one meeting.”
For Iran, the meetings were a success in a number of ways. Iranian officials drew attention to their complaints, including their accusations that the West or Israel was behind the slaying of an Iranian nuclear scientist last week, and the wounding of a second scientist. Iranian officials also publicized their insistence that they would not agree to curbs on their nuclear program — a view that is popular in Iran.
Mark Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. nonproliferation official now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, defended the administration’s efforts, saying any engagement with the Iranians would have to begin slowly.
But he added that the administration can’t afford to have the diplomacy last too long because Iran is likely to have the capacity to build a nuclear weapon within a little more than a year.
“They’d better get cracking,” he said.
Special correspondent Julia Damianova in Vienna contributed to this report.