World powers reacted with optimism to Iranian proposals on ways to end a decade-long nuclear standoff as two days of talks got underway in Geneva.
Iran began today’s meeting with a one-hour presentation to diplomats from the U.S., China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K. The meeting at the Palais des Nations in Geneva is the first since negotiations stalled in April and follows a telephone conversation between Rouhani and Barack Obama last month -- the highest level contact between leaders of the two countries since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“We have come here with a sense of cautious optimism and a greater sense of determination,” European Union spokesman Michael Mann said at a media briefing. “We want Iran to engage constructively with the proposals we’ve put forward, or with proposals they put forward themselves. What matters is the end result.”
Rouhani’s overtures have raised expectations of progress in negotiations, while failure could lead to a military attack on his country. The U.S. and Israel both say they’re ready to use force to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons if diplomacy doesn’t work. Iran says it has the right to enrich uranium as part of a nuclear program that’s solely for civilian purposes.
The demand for recognition of that right, and a relaxation of the international sanctions that have squeezed Iran’s economy, will be central issues in the talks.
“It was a serious, constructive atmosphere,” Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told Iranian state TV from Geneva of today’s morning meeting. “Iran’s proposal and determination were welcomed by the other side,” he said, adding that further meetings would be held in the afternoon.
“At the end of these talks tomorrow, we will decide about the time and venue of the next round of talks, that we hope comes in a month,” he said. Iran’s presentation to the meeting included a slide show entitled “Ending an Unnecessary Crisis and Opening New Horizons,” according to a diplomat accredited to the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The six powers, known as the P5+1, offered at the last meeting in Kazakhstan to lift curbs on petrochemicals and gold in exchange for a partial freeze on nuclear work. They were split over recognizing Iran’s right to enrich uranium, with Russia expressing support.
“If Iranian officials offer concessions on their nuclear program, the U.S. and its European partners should be prepared to provide immediate sanctions relief,” said David Cortright, a nuclear policy specialist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “A partial suspension of non-military financial sanctions could help lock in initial Iranian concessions.”
The Geneva round is unlikely to result in an accord and further meetings will be needed, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on his Facebook page before meeting European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton late yesterday.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted in July for tighter sanctions on Iran, which haven’t become law. Ten leading senators said in a letter to Obama that Congress is ready to introduce new curbs if Iran’s “rhetorical assurances of the last two weeks” aren’t followed by action. They said continued enrichment is “not a prerequisite for a peaceful nuclear energy program.”
Zarif’s presence marks the first time in several rounds of talks that an Iranian foreign minister will attend. Previous sessions were at the level of lower ranking under-secretaries and political officers.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who isn’t attending, said the “window for diplomacy is cracking open.” The top U.S. official in Geneva will be Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.
At today’s first meeting, Iran was expected to propose a three-step plan that would include a commitment from the P5+1 to recognize Iran’s right to enrich, according to the Iranian Students News agency.
Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said Iran is ready to “negotiate about the form, size and level of enrichment,” state television reported Oct. 13. “Transporting the enriched stockpile out of the country is one of our red lines,” he said.
Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East, says Iran’s nuclear program should be dismantled. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told parliament yesterday that it would be a “historic mistake” to ease sanctions in Iran before they achieve their aim.
The U.S. will keep up the economic pressure, only offering relief in proportion to concessions from Iran, said an Obama administration official, who asked not to be identified.
Inside Iran, which holds the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves, there are signs of division over Rouhani’s diplomacy. Newspapers close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have opposed a prospective thaw with the West, suggesting Rouhani may have limited room to make concessions.
Iran’s first negotiations with Western nations since Rouhani took office in August have analysts forecasting a drop in Brent crude to below $100 a barrel should the talks lead to easing sanctions on the Middle Eastern nation’s oil exports. The benchmark grade used to price more than half the world’s oil would decline by $12 a barrel, according to the mean of 19 trader and analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg News yesterday.