Rare Optimism on Iran Nuclear Dispute Preceeds Hard Talks

Iran agreed with world powers to accelerate negotiations on its nuclear program, talks that will test the country’s readiness to make concessions and allay concerns it’s seeking the capability to produce nuclear weapons.

Top diplomats from the U.S. and five other nations met yesterday at the United Nations with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who proposed a goal of reaching and implementing a comprehensive deal within a year.

They agreed to “jump-start the process so we could move forward with a view to agree first on the parameters of the endgame,” Zarif said later, when he joined new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was addressing the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society in New York.

While saying yesterday’s talks went well, diplomats said the test of whether the Rouhani regime’s show of moderation is more than rhetorical will begin when detailed negotiations resume in Geneva on Oct. 15. Iran is under pressure from international economic sanctions to curtail its uranium enrichment and take other steps to resolve questions about its nuclear program.

The U.S. and Israel say they suspect that Iran is secretly trying to develop the ability to make nuclear weapons, and have threatened military action to ensure that doesn’t happen. Iran says the program is for peaceful purposes.

‘Change in Tone’

“Needless to say, one meeting and a change in tone, which was welcome, doesn’t answer those questions yet,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Zarif “did put some possibilities on the table,” Kerry said. The Iranian presentation was “very different in tone and very different in the vision” of the future, he said.

During the session, Kerry met one-on-one for 30 minutes with his Iranian counterpart, the highest-level formal talks between the U.S. and Iran since before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Zarif said it was “more than a chat,” and Kerry said their discussion was about “how to proceed.”

At the meeting were foreign ministers from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. -- plus Germany, known as the P5+1, and Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief. Zarif joked that he first thought his timetable might be too ambitious, then “saw that some of my colleagues were even more ambitious and wanted to go faster.”

‘Inherent Right’

In a UN address earlier this week, Rouhani, 64, said Iran is ready to enter talks “without delay.” He also said Iran maintains its “inherent right” to enrich uranium.

While his remarks were less confrontational than speeches by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the U.S. and other nations want to test whether Iran is ready to foreclose the possibility of using its nuclear program to develop weapons.

“Rouhani has a big interest in moving quickly to show that he can get sanctions relief, but whether he can deliver the rollback in their program that we will need for that remains to be seen,” said Dennis Ross, President Barack Obama’s former adviser on Iran who is now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Some early signs raise questions about whether the expectations Rouhani has raised are outpacing the reality. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency circulated a document yesterday in which Iran stuck to its positions, including barring inspectors from visiting the Parchin military base to investigate whether tests were conducted there related to triggering a nuclear device.

Iranian Proposal

The U.S. and Israel also have concerns about the Arak heavy-water reactor nearing completion, which would produce plutonium for thermonuclear weapons.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, controls the country’s nuclear program, and that, too, has prompted questions about what Rouhani can do.

Rouhani told reporters in New York today that he has the support of “all forces” in Iran for the next phase of nuclear talks. He said Iran is ready to resolve outstanding issues quickly, and will present a proposal at the Geneva meeting.

Kerry told CBS that the U.S. is looking for steps such as capping uranium enrichment at a low level and increasing international monitoring of declared and suspected nuclear sites, in an interview to be aired on the “60 Minutes” program Sept. 29. Excerpts were e-mailed by the State Department.

Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst in Arlington, Virginia for the Santa Monica, California-based Rand Corp., said a “good chance” exists that diplomacy will be able to defuse the nuclear tensions.

‘Point of Convergence’

“We shouldn’t expect Rouhani to reset U.S.-Iran relations,” Nader said. “That may not be possible. But Iran’s desire to lift sanctions and the U.S. goal to limit Iran’s nuclear program provides a point of convergence.”

Rouhani was elected on a pledge to ease Iran’s international isolation and repair an economy crippled by the sanctions. Oil exports, Iran’s main source of revenue, have dropped by half to less than 1 million barrels a day, and inflation has almost doubled in two years, reaching 39 percent last month.

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