Iran, 6 world powers praise ‘forward looking’ nuclear talks
GENEVA — With both sides desperate for a deal, Iran and six world powers Wednesday hailed a new round of negotiations on Tehran’s disputed nuclear program as “substantive and forward looking,” and set an accelerated schedule of meetings to determine whether they can find common ground after a decade of stalemate.
The discussions, begun at a moment of widespread hope for progress, were described as difficult and tense at times. Yet the Iranians and the global powers agreed on a joint statement that praised each side and signaled a commitment to a diplomatic solution.
A senior U.S. official said that in years of diplomacy the two sides had never had such “intense, detailed, straightforward, candid” talks. The Iranian government, which until the arrival of a new administration in August had been mostly hostile to world pressure against the program, praised the discussions in the state-controlled press.
The six world powers are eager to reach a deal because of widespread concern that Iran may be as little as six months from reaching nuclear weapons capability. Iran badly needs an agreement that will ease the U.S. and European sanctions that have battered its economy and increased its international isolation.
Hopes for a deal have been soaring because of two months of overtures from both the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, and President Obama. The two men talked by telephone Sept. 27, breaking a 34-year silence between the nations’ leaders.
On Wednesday, however, the two sides provided few details of their talks, leaving it unclear whether Iran has come any closer to accepting immediate curbs on the nuclear program. It was also unclear whether the United States and the five other powers were any closer to lifting the crippling economic punishments on Iran, or eventually acceding to Iran’s demand that it be allowed to enrich uranium, which in highly enriched form can be used as nuclear bomb fuel.
This lack of visible proof of Iran’s new commitment may draw fire from Congress, which has demanded quick and “verifiable” proof that Iran has had a change of heart, and from wary U.S. allies, such as Israel and the Persian Gulf states, who fear the Obama administration might be too eager to appease Tehran.
Sen. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), one of the principal sponsors of sanctions legislation, said Wednesday that the Senate “should immediately move forward with a new round of economic sanctions targeting all remaining Iranian government revenue and reserves.”
Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, head of the U.S. negotiating team, had appealed to members of Congress this month to delay any action until this week, so that Iran could lay out a new proposal that proved its willingness to cooperate.
Diplomats said they were unwilling to provide many details of the negotiations for fear that they would stir opposition that would undermine the diplomacy.
There were, at the least, some signs of good chemistry between Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s American-educated foreign minister, and other diplomats.
Zarif, who has been almost immobilized this week by intense back pain, was offered sympathy, remedies, and even titles of books on back ailments by the American diplomats, the senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomacy. Zarif has laid blame for the pain on attacks leveled on him by hard-line critics of his government’s outreach to the United States.
Some observers worry that if the talks collapse, the administration will be left to adjust to the reality of an Iranian nuclear capability — which Obama has said he would not accept — or unleash a military attack.
The six powers — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — said negotiators would meet again in Geneva on Nov. 7 and 8, and probably soon thereafter as well. In the meantime, technical experts will meet to discuss details of nuclear safeguards and sanctions issues. Previous meetings with Iran on nuclear issues tended to be at least several months apart.
There were signs that the diplomats were grappling in the meetings with the sensitive issue of whether Iran should, at the close of negotiations, be granted an international blessing to enrich uranium at least to low levels.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said during a news conference that the two sides tried in the meeting to lay a path for the negotiations that would cover both small initial steps to build mutual confidence, and the final stage of the talks. She said the delegations were using a plan offered Tuesday by Iran as the basis for discussion.
Ali Vaez, an Iran specialist at International Crisis Group, said he believed that the discussion of the “end state” of negotiations would inevitably lead to promises from the six that they would consider Iranian enrichment. He said he believed that the Obama administration, which has never ruled out Iranian enrichment, is probably signaling now that it might accept the idea if Iran first settles all international complaints about its nuclear program.
He said that an American agreement to Iranian enrichment would set off protests by critics, who believe Iran will cheat and secretly reach nuclear weapons capability. But he insisted that “there is no other way” to reach a deal since the Iranians will not embark on negotiations unless they believe that they ultimately will be entitled to enrichment.
U.S. officials have been trying to tamp down hope for a deal, saying that a breakthrough was unlikely after two days of talks.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, in his daily briefing in Washington, cautioned that “no one should expect a breakthrough overnight.”
“I mean, these are complicated issues, they’re technical issues, and as the president has said, the history of mistrust is very deep.” Still, he said, the Iranians brought to the meeting “a new proposal with a level of seriousness and substance that we had not seen before.”
The senior U.S. official who spoke in Geneva said in response to a reporter’s question that it was not accurate to call the meetings “groundbreaking.”
Acknowledging that the two sides were nowhere near an agreement, the official said, “We are beginning negotiation, to get to a place where one could imagine that you could possibly have an agreement. There are serious differences.”
There have been some hints of strain over the last two days, despite the generally positive public comments from the diplomats.
Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said there was “no reason to break out into applause — things could have worked out better,” according to the Interfax news agency.
Diplomats from the six powers have complained that they needed the Iranians to move more quickly from the broad strokes of a comprehensive plan they laid out Tuesday to its difficult details. Iranian officials have complained privately that U.S. officials were not making good on promises to be flexible, and that Ashton had pushed Zarif too hard in their private meeting Tuesday night.
Some unexpected complications appeared. There have long been hints from the Iranians that they might agree to an international deal that would give United Nations inspectors closer scrutiny of their nuclear facilities.
But at a news conference, Zarif said Iran wasn’t ready to accept the so-called additional protocol because it was “illegal” under Iranian law.
Zarif said there was “serious give and take” in the talks, and held out hope that the meetings could be “the beginning of a new phase in our relations.”
He also appeared to be warning that any new U.S. sanctions could jeopardize the talks, saying Americans should “refrain from any actions that would exacerbate the problem and make it more difficult to address.”
In a comment to an Iranian reporter, Zarif said Iran would also continue “insisting on our rights” to nuclear technology.
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