Iran Nuclear Talks Herald A Beginning, Not A Breakthrough

Just as a last-minute deal ended the standoff that had shuttered the U.S. government, the second most important negotiations in the world this week took place in Geneva. The talks on Iran’s nuclear program were the first since the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and they offered the first real test of whether Rouhani’s audacious campaign to rehabilitate Iran’s reputation and its economy could generate a more constructive negotiating process and meaningful constraints on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In outlining a framework that appears to address the main areas of international concern surrounding its nuclear activities, Iran has passed the first hurdle of that test. Still, Geneva represented only the beginning and a painfully belated one at that — more than a decade after the full scope of Tehran’s nuclear activities first came to light and only after sanctions have cost Iran tens of billions in revenues and eroded its access to the international financial system. Achieving some forward momentum on such an urgent issue represents real and much-awaited progress, but no one should mistake the smiles and satisfied statements emanating from Geneva for a substantive breakthrough. Washington and Tehran have finally found a pathway to resolving the nuclear standoff, but divergent positions and contentious domestic politics on each side mean that it may be a rocky road to a comprehensive agreement.

Given the history on the nuclear issue, and in the bilateral estrangement more broadly, this shouldn’t be a surprise. No reasonable person should have anticipated a breakthrough this week in Geneva; as the unnamed senior U.S. official who briefed the press at the close of the Geneva talks mused “I’m not sure the adjective is appropriate to the process that has taken place over the last two days. This is a beginning. Beginnings are rarely groundbreaking because you are sort of putting pieces on the table.”

Still, Rouhani’s explicit determination to resolve the nuclear crisis combined with the dramatic developments that transpired during his recent trip to New York have inevitably, irrevocably raised expectations. And with a media scrum in Geneva so fierce that jostling reporters briefly set off a fire alarm, and a U.S. Congress so impatient for all-or-nothing that the Obama administration had to beg for a mere week’s delay in consideration of the latest sanctions bill, expectations will directly impact the outcome at the bargaining table. Managing those expectations over the course of the forthcoming months is going to prove at least as challenging as hammering out an accord that is acceptable to Washington, Tehran, and their various influential constituencies.

The limited details available on what was discussed in Geneva suggest that officials on both sides are going to have their work cut out for them. The terms of the proposal that Tehran put forward in the talks this week have not been made public, and Iranian officials are dismissing media reports based on anonymous sources that outline an array of measures that would appear to fall short of what Washington and its international partners are seeking. Iranian negotiators have publically suggested that Tehran could begin implementation of the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would facilitate snap inspections of declared nuclear sites. Iranian media reports have also indicated that the proposal includes a six-month suspension of 19.75 percent enrichment, measures to forestall the accumulation of stockpiles of such “medium” enriched uranium, and a broader willingness to discuss the size and scope of Iran’s lower-level enrichment.

However, media reports as well as statements in the press attributed to influential Iranian officials in the run-up to Geneva raise questions about how far Tehran is willing to go on several of the issues that Western officials and experts have in the past described as crucial: the underground enrichment facility at Fordo, the heavy-water reactor at Arak due to be commissioned next year, and the country’s persistently expanding stockpiles of low-enriched uranium. For Washington, there are also legitimate questions about the scope for flexibility in the negotiations; although the U.S. negotiating team included several sanctions experts, U.S. officials and their international partners have insisted that most or even all of the legal restrictions on Iran’s banking system and its energy sector must remain in place until a comprehensive agreement can be negotiated and fully implemented. And even as the Geneva talks were underway, an even more draconian sanctions bill awaits debate in the U.S. Senate, and the political imperatives of such legislation almost surely outweighs any interest in facilitating the negotiations with Tehran.

In the meantime, there is some genuine good news coming out of Geneva. For starters, the Iranian negotiating team came prepared to deal, which represents a significant improvement from prior rounds of talks. For the past eight years, Tehran has appeared utterly unwilling to undertake serious measures to address the world’s concerns around its nuclear issues. That appears to have changed, and while the two sides remain some distance from an actual agreement around the modalities, the fact that the Iranians are now actively seeking formulations that address the high-priority issues offers a basis for optimism that a deal can be achieved. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif screened a Powerpoint presentation as part of his opening presentation — a wonkish touch that underscored the seriousness of Tehran’s approach. In an interview with an Iranian journalist, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Aragchi explained that “in fact there is a solution for every concern. For example if taking enriched material out of the country is a redline for us, we will resolve the concerns regarding those materials through other means. We raised these proposals at the negotiating table and it is them who should think about it and respond.”

To the uninitiated, this may not sound like a significant step forward, but it’s worth recalling that Iran’s prior negotiating team typically approached the nuclear talks with an apparent determination to avoid ever dealing with or even speaking about the country’s nuclear activities. In that context, negotiators who are attempting to respond seriously to specific Western concerns and devise mechanisms that entail new transparency and real constraints on the nuclear program represent the best hope for progress in a decade.

In addition, the personal investment of Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is another positive sign from Tehran. Zarif travelled to the talks despite a serious medical condition that forced him into a wheelchair by the final hours of the trip. He opened and closed the talks alongside European Union high representative for foreign and security policy Catherine Ashton. Zarif’s willingness to participate despite the lack of commensurate representation from the United States raised some hackles in Iran, where pride demands protocol and respect is almost as important an outcome to this process as any sanctions relief. His engagement and political capital underscores Rouhani’s ongoing commitment to resolving the nuclear stalemate.

Finally, there appears to be a tenacious effort on the part of both sides to create the most encouraging and effective atmosphere for the talks, perhaps in hopes that an environment of goodwill can beget actual goodwill this time around. Iranian negotiators switched the language of the dialogue to English, eliminating the need for simultaneous translation and ensuring a more productive exchange of views. The Iranians agreed to their first bilateral meeting with U.S. negotiators in more than four years, and managed to craft a rare joint statement with EU foreign policy chief Ashton. Each of the relevant officials avoided saying anything other than the most carefully crafted platitudes praising the newly constructive atmosphere and the depth of the technical exchanges among the various teams.

It’s notable that now that the Iranian negotiating team has returned to Tehran, there has been no recapitulation, only mild backlash or relatively minimal leaking (by the standards of Iran’s gossipy media.) Even the hard-liners have added their endorsement to the Rouhani diplomatic offensive. In an interview published by an Iranian news agency, the Supreme Leader’s representative to the university system explained that whatever the outcome of the talks, Iran’s new diplomacy will be a “win” for Tehran, adding “there is nothing wrong with negotiating even with your worst enemies. And one can even sign an agreement with the enemy.” For its part, U.S. officials have been similarly tight-lipped and upbeat, noting that “one of the marks of a serious negotiation is when that negotiation does not happen through the press.”

It is profoundly encouraging to see progress — finally — on an issue that has seemed both intractable and susceptible to dangerous escalatory pressures. However, the jubilation that greeted Rouhani’s victory and the unprecedented cracks in the wall of U.S-Iranian antipathy during his visit to New York must be tempered by persistent reminders that, as the unnamed American official who briefed the press in Geneva noted wryly, “if there weren’t serious differences, this would have been resolved a long time ago.”

Those differences extended even to the setting. In deference to the Islamic Republic’s interpretation of religious sensibilities, organizers erected a large shroud to cover artwork at the Palais de Nations, the United Nations Office at Geneva, for Zarif and Ashton’s press opportunity. The offending fresco, entitled “Creation of Man,” is located in the lobby of the Council Chamber where this week’s talks took place. The marble bas-relief was apparently inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco, and was donated to the League of Nations in 1938.

The curtain also obscured an inspirational quotation, carved in the wall just below the triptych, attributed to Robert Cecil, who was one of the most ardent advocates of the League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor. Presumably their concealment was an inadvertent byproduct of the consideration of Iran’s official modesty. Still, it would have been more fitting had the negotiators from all sides had an opportunity to see and reflect on Cecil’s invocation as they launched the latest round of what has been a protracted and costly effort to ensure that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapons capability:

Here is a great work for peace in which all can participate
The nations must disarm or perish
Be just and fear not