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Iran Talks to Resume Amid Guarded Optimism

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (far left) sitting next to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 27. Credit: European External Action Service/cc by 2.0

GENEVA, Oct 13 2013 (IPS) - Almost exactly four months after the election of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, talks over the Islamic Republic’s controversial nuclear programme will resume here on Tuesday.

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia plus Germany) were last held in April in Almaty, Kazakhstan, when the Iranian team was headed by former presidential candidate Saeed Jalili, a hardliner who was defeated by the moderate cleric in Iran’s June election.

“No one should expect a decade-old impasse to be resolved in just two days." -- Ali Vaez of ICG

The closest Iran came to reaching a nuclear deal under Jalili’s watch was in October 2009 when his direct meeting with then under-secretary of state William Burns resulted in a tentative agreement that included transferring most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium to Russia to be processed into fuel rods for medical purposes.

But hopes were dashed when “Iran’s tumultuous post-election environment, combined with a lack of transparency regarding the agreement’s details, led to opposition across the political spectrum,” Farideh Farhi, an independent scholar at the University of Hawaii, told IPS.

“Eventually the inability of both Jalili and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to convince others in Iran that the agreement included an explicit acceptance of Iran’s enrichment programme led to Leader Ali Khamenei’s withdrawal of support for the agreement,” she said.’s new team

Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiating chief (2003-05) who has promised “moderation” and “constructive interaction with the world,” has raised hopes among Iranians that his administration will secure a deal that will include relief from the many rounds of sanctions Iran is currently enduring.

His trip with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to New York last month resulted in Iran’s highest-level formal direct meeting with a U.S. official since its 1979 revolution.

Zarif was “optimistic” after meeting with the P5+1 and a private 30-minute discussion with Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 27.

“Now we have to match our words with action. And that’s, I hope, not a challenge,” the Western-educated diplomat said at the end of a talk by Rouhani.

The meeting was followed by a brief but cordial phone call between President Barack Obama and Rouhani that suggested a thaw in the icy relations of the two countries.

While Obama’s announcement that Kerry would be directly involved in negotiations with Iran was received positively by diplomacy advocates, the secretary of state is not expected to attend the Geneva talks, where the U.S. lead representative will continue to be Wendy Sherman, the under secretary for political affairs.

That the U.S. side will now include Adam Szubin, the director of the Treasury agency that administers and enforces sanctions (OFAC), also indicates the U.S. is evaluating its sanctions policy.

Zarif will only reportedly attend an introductory session of the two-day talks (Oct. 15-16) that will include EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton. The Iranian side will then be led by Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, according to Iranian press reports.

“I am reassured by the possibility that the Iranian side will be led by Minister Zarif, because he is a brilliant diplomat, and by the hints that the purpose of the meeting is for Iran to present ideas and for the others to get clarification and report back to Principals,” Peter Jenkins, who served as the UK’s permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (2001-06), told IPS.

“But problems could arise if either side sought to move too far too fast, meaning that they demanded commitments from the other side without volunteering commitments of their own,” he said.

Leaks and speculation

“We will present our views, as agreed, in Geneva, not before. No Rush, No Speculations Please (of course if you can help it!!!),” tweeted Zarif from his official account on Oct. 11.

Two days earlier, former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani seemed to suggest that Iran was willing to talk about its stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium.

“We have some surplus, you know, the amount that we don’t need. But over that we can have some discussions,” Larijani, currently Iran’s Parliament Speaker, told the Associated Press on the sidelines of an Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting in Geneva.

The Iranian parliament’s news website later described those comments as “contrary to reality and baseless,” according to a translation by Al-Monitor.

The Wall Street Journal meanwhile reported on Oct. 9 that Iran has been preparing a proposal that’s very similar to the P5+1’s Almaty proposal.

The P5+1’s last confidence-building offer, which Iran did not formally respond to, included demands that Iran suspend 20-percent enrichment, ship some of its existing uranium stockpiles abroad and temporarily shutter its Fordow enrichment facility in return for relief from U.S. and EU sanctions on precious metals and petrochemicals and on sanctions targeting Iran’s airline industry.

On Sunday, the Iranian Student News Agency reported that Iran would be presenting a three-phased proposal that includes enrichment inside Iran.

Later that day, negotiator Araqchi was quoted saying “Of course we will negotiate regarding the form, amount, and various levels of [uranium] enrichment, but the shipping of materials out of the country is our red line,” according to Reuters.

Experts, however, urge caution on these reports.

“Unsubstantiated leaks so far have only created inflated hopes that could be dangerous and lead to disappointment,” Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group, told IPS.

“No one should expect a decade-old impasse to be resolved in just two days…At best, the two sides could narrow their differences on the broad contours of an end game and a road map for getting there,” he said.

Restricted timeframe 

Rouhani stressed in New York last month that he hopes a deal can be reached within three to six months. After that point hardliners could regain the upper hand domestically if Rouhani’s foreign policy has not resulted in any wins for Iran.

Meanwhile Congress is preparing to push forward more sanctions legislation.

The Senate Banking Committee agreed to delay the evaluation of a sanctions bill passed in July that further targets Iran’s oil exports after pressure from Kerry, but will proceed in the coming weeks, according to the New York Times.

When asked how increased sanctions would affect the diplomatic process, Farhi said “it depends on whether some sort of agreement is reached in Geneva or not.”

“With no agreement, the imposition of sanctions will be the public announcement of failure of talks. If there is an agreement and the U.S. Congress still insists on ratcheting up sanctions, then it is yet another announcement of Obama’s political weakness,” the Iran expert told IPS.

“I hope that all parties have enough foresight to know that, given the publicly expressed desire to resolve the issue, this is the time for flexibility and a step by step process of mutual trust building for the sake of avoiding a path that neither side desires,” said Farhi.

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