All Sides Say Iran Talks Get Serious While Long Road Remains

The pace of talks on Iran’s nuclear program picked up after a two-day meeting in Geneva, as the participants described a new level of intensity in negotiations and agreed to reconvene next month.

U.S. and European diplomats said the discussions, the first since Hassan Rouhani was elected president and pledged to repair Iran’s global standing, went into more detail than previous rounds and took place in a better atmosphere. Specialists will meet on technical and sanctions-related aspects of the proposals before Nov. 7, when political talks will resume in the Swiss city.

“It seems like the two sides are finally speaking the same language and working off the same draft,” Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said in an interview in Geneva. “That’s progress.”

Details of the discussions in Geneva weren’t disclosed, and reaching an agreement would require overcoming obstacles that in the past have been insurmountable. It’s not clear what concessions Iran will offer that weren’t on the table under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Participants -- representing the the U.S., U.K., Russia, France, China, Germany, Iran and the European Union -- welcomed the improved mood while saying there’s no guarantee it will lead to a deal.

“This first step has been taken on a rather difficult road,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, welcoming what he called a “new approach” from the world powers at the bargaining table. A U.S. official, who asked not to be identified because of diplomatic protocol, said getting a deal will be tough and a positive outcome isn’t assured.

Tone, Content

While Iran came to the talks with a new approach in “both in tone and content,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in a phone interview that the parties’ positions “remain far apart from each other.”

Iran is calling on the U.S. and European Union to ease sanctions that have battered its economy. The Western powers are demanding curbs on Iran’s nuclear work, which they say may be a cover for a weapons program. Iran says it has a right to enrich uranium and is interested only in using nuclear technology for peaceful, civilian purposes.

Israeli Comment

Iran must be judged by its actions, not its words, a senior Israeli official said late yesterday. The international community must not ease or lift sanctions until Iran dismantles a program intended to build nuclear weapons, the official said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to comment on record.

Rouhani’s phone call with President Barack Obama last month raised expectations of a compromise that would avert the risk of armed conflict over the issue. The U.S. and Israel say they’re ready to use force if diplomacy doesn’t work.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said “substantive” conversations in Geneva were held in a “positive atmosphere.” White House spokesman Jay Carney, speaking in Washington, called Iran’s proposal at the talks “very useful.”

Zarif called on all sides to “refrain from actions that exacerbate the problem.” Many U.S. lawmakers have backed tougher sanctions, while the Obama administration is urging them to wait and see what emerges from talks with Iran.

‘Diplomatic Backlash’

“The administration will have a hard time persuading Congress that diplomacy takes time,” Vaez said. “Secrecy could be their ally in protecting the process from domestic backlash.”

With hardliners in Iran also opposed to a rapprochement with the U.S., participants at the talks have agreed to keep proposals secret to avoid pressure from public opinion at home, according to a Western diplomat involved in the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Iran, holder of the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves, has seen exports plunge under the sanctions, while its currency lost value and inflation surged.

“Sanctions have hurt the Iranian people,” Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said in an interview. “But it’s not so severe that it will make us give up our rights to nuclear power.”

Uranium Enrichment

The sanctions haven’t prevented enrichment, according to data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which show that the country would have enough material to make 15 nuclear weapons if it chose to enrich further. IAEA monitors have reported that Iran’s stockpile of 20-percent-enriched uranium, which could quickly be purified to weapons grade, has not increased in the last six months.

Araghchi said Iran will agree to more monitoring of its nuclear sites while initial steps are being taken, though it won’t immediately ratify the IAEA’s “Additional Protocol,” a binding agreement for faster and wider inspections.

Wider access would be dependent on a final deal that recognized Iran’s right to enrich, Araghchi said. He has also said that Iran is ready to negotiate the form, size and level of its enrichment.

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