Inconclusive Iran Nuclear Talks Lead to Another Try: Q&A

Four days of talks in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program fell short of a deal.

While the negotiations are scheduled to resume on Nov. 20, the closed-door discussions left unresolved questions about Iran’s willingness to suspend or dismantle its nuclear-enrichment activities and the wisdom of any move by the U.S. and allies to ease economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Here are some questions and answers about where the talks stand:

Q: Who participated?

A: Representatives of Iran, the European Union and of the countries known as the P5+1. That’s diplomatic shorthand for the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China -- plus Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe.

Q: Why did the Geneva talks attract so much attention?

A: They were a follow-up to the first such negotiations under Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in June on a platform of moderation and a pledge to seek the removal of the international sanctions that are crippling the nation’s economy.

The talks over the weekend gained added stature because foreign ministers of most of the nations took take part. The more than 10 hours of direct talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were the longest exchange of views between top diplomats of the two nations since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that ousted the U.S.-backed Shah.

Q: What were the U.S. and allies seeking in Geneva?

A: They were pursuing what they described as a first step toward a final agreement that would end concerns that Iran is secretly trying to develop the ability to make nuclear weapons. The agreement discussed in Geneva would require Iran to suspend some of its enrichment of uranium, which can be used to produce a nuclear weapon, and make its research more transparent.

Q: What did the U.S. and allies offer in return?

A: They indicated that they would ease some financial restrictions on Iran in a manner that Western officials said could be reversed if a more comprehensive accord failed to follow.

This would include temporary easing of the sanctions on petrochemicals, gold and auto trade and some access to frozen Iranian assets, according to diplomats who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak.

Q: Would sanctions against buying oil from Iran -- its main source of government revenue -- be eased?

A: No.

Q: Was anything accomplished in Geneva?

A: While no deal was reached, Kerry said the U.S. and Iran have “narrowed differences” and made “significant progress” toward an initial agreement. Zarif told reporters that differences among the parties were to be expected and that he was pleased all were “on the same wavelength.”

Q: Were the French the obstacle?

A: No, they simply were more vocal about unresolved issues that also concerned the U.S. and other nations, according to U.S. officials briefed on the private talks who asked not to be identified discussing them. Because France has maintained better relations with Iran than have the U.S. and U.K., French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was well-positioned to signal that the Western allies were united, the officials said.

Fabius gained attention during the talks through a radio interview in which he said allies shouldn’t accept a “fool’s bargain” and said the unresolved issues included the Iranians’ partially built heavy-water reactor at Arak.

Q: Why is the Arak reactor a matter of dispute?

A: Nuclear weapons can be produced by enriching uranium to 90 percent or so, using centrifuges. Iran already has produced some 20 percent, or medium-enriched, uranium, which it could further enrich to weapons-grade. Plutonium recycled from a heavy-water reactor such as the one being built at Arak could be used to make even more powerful weapons. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is solely for civilian use and that it has a right to pursue it.

Q: So is the Arak reactor the major unresolved issue?

A: No. These include the language of an agreement and questions about how Iran’s nuclear facilities and enriched uranium stockpiles would be inspected and monitored, according to the U.S. officials.

Q: How close to a deal did the negotiators get?

A: Very close, according to reports Kerry sent back to Washington. Some members of his team thought the negotiations could be concluded in another day or two, while others thought it might take longer. The administration’s message of optimism may be intended in part to help fend off a congressional push for tighter sanctions on Iran.

Q: If a deal was that close, why did they break off the talks?

A: Some U.S. officials thought that walking away without a deal was one way to demonstrate that the administration isn’t rushing into an agreement with Iran, as some congressional critics have said, according to the officials.

Q: Is there any deal that Israel would accept?

A: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled even before the Geneva talks that the U.S. and allies were heading for a “bad deal” that would only allow Iran more time to move toward development of a nuclear weapon. Obama administration officials have reached a consensus that Israel is unlikely to accept any agreement short of dismantling all of Iran’s nuclear facilities and removing its stores of enriched uranium, in both cases with international inspectors present.

Q: So is there a danger that Israel might someday attack an Iranian nuclear facility, even if a deal is struck?

A: Yes. Netanyahu has made it clear that Israel will never entrust its security to any other nation, so it may act unilaterally, as it did in destroying nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria.

Q: Will pro-Israel U.S. lawmakers succeed in blocking an accord like the one Kerry is seeking?

A: Netanyahu urged American Jews yesterday to “stand up now and be counted” against a partial agreement with Iran. Kerry is returning to Washington to meet with members of Congress and urge them not to push forward with added sanctions that some are advocating. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has said he may try to attach such a measure to the annual defense authorization bill that could come to the Senate floor this week.

Q: Are the Iranians getting a chance to show their willingness to compromise before the talks resume on Nov. 20?

A: Yes. Iran and UN monitors today signed their first accord in six years giving inspectors broader monitoring powers over nuclear facilities in the country. It includes access to Iran’s largest uranium mine, according to Ali Akbar Salehi, who heads the country’s nuclear program.

Q: Will the Nov. 20 meeting be as big an event as last weekend’s marathon talks?

A: Not necessarily. The next meeting is supposed to be at a lower level that won’t include foreign ministers. Kerry said staff members would need to work through technical details and not all the ministers would be able to attend.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.