In its coverage of the round of negotiations in Geneva that ended yesterday – the first full talks between Iran and the P5+1 since the election of President Hassan Rouhani – the Iranian press found plenty of positives to focus on, particularly in its straight news coverage of the meetings. Opinion and analysis pieces were largely cautiously optimistic, although hardline commentators focused on potential stumbling blocks for diplomatic progress, including the perceived futility of engaging in confidence-building measures with the United States.
On Iran’s front pages, the negotiations dominated the headlines today. Zahra Aghayani of Etemaad reported on the talks under the title of the “Bright Lights of Geneva,” noting that the “heartwarming … outcomes of the first day of the talks were referred to by all participants as constructive and encouraged the two sides to issue a joint statement for the first time.” Similarly, the headline in Quds read “Cold and Rainy Weather in Geneva; Warm and Positive Negotiations for Iran and the P5+1.” Hardline sources tended to be largely happy in their coverage as well, even if their angles were different; Kayhan highlighted Iran’s defense of its rights, with the headline, “[Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif: America Must Show its Goodwill in Actions.”
When it came to analyzing the outcomes of Geneva, reformist commentators largely lauded Iran’s performance at the Geneva talks, arguing that Zarif and his team defended Iran’s interests – most notably by avoiding budging on Iran’s right to enrich uranium – but that they acted markedly different to the Ahmadinejad administration, whose bluster was blamed for earning Iran the severe sanctions it currently faces. For example, in Shargh, Gholam-Ali Khoshrow highlighted the groundbreaking importance of holding a bilateral meeting with the Americans during the Geneva talks, saying, “The meeting with the American team was important because, as has been said even by the leaders of the International Atomic Energy Agency many times, it is the Americans who put the most pressure on other nations to increase the sanctions and transform the legal and technological nature of our nuclear program into one thought of in the security sphere.” He also suggested a symbolic lessening of sanctions would go a long way to reinforcing Iran’s diplomatic push.
Some reformists pushed harder against the U.S., while still praising Rouhani and Zarif’s diplomacy. Former Geneva-based diplomat Ali Khorram wrote in Etemaad that, while Rouhani has traded the past administration’s “negotiations for the sake of negotiations” approach in favor of “negotiations for a result,” the popularity of this diplomacy in Iran should not be taken as a vindication of pressure. “This exaggerated takeaway has reached the extent that the participation of the majority of the people in the election and the change-oriented vote for Dr. Rouhani and the new and positive readiness of Iran for constructive negotiations with the P5+1 is seen as being due to the sanctions, which is not the case,” he wrote.
Conservative sources tended to be a bit more skeptical still. Fars News Agency ran an editorial claiming Geneva heralded a new phase of diplomacy to be marked by difficult work; the beginning of “real politics” after the smiles and speeches of the trip to New York for the UN General Assembly. He wrote that Israeli influence will be the prime stumbling block that could keep a deal from being achieved. “The Zionist Regime not only will feel weakened by the Iranian proposal,” he argued, “but will try to exert influence and alter the American position to be in line with its demands, if there is significant difference between the American position and that of Tel Aviv.” Meanwhile, Kayhan was harsher still, with Saadollah Zarei arguing that the entire premise of confidence-building measures is unacceptable to Iran. After citing Quranic text in highlighting America’s lack of trustworthiness, he argued that an acceptance of interim confidence-building measures will mean Iran will have to admit wrongdoing and submit to its enemies’ will in order to supposedly gain their confidence. “In this very first step we have to sign our names as being worthy of blame, and we let our rival write whatever they want above our signature, and then they say, ‘Very well, now answer these, say, 100 requests,’ and they have the right, after each of our responses, to accept or reject what we say.” Noting that Iran shouldn’t have confidence in its partner, he argued, “Confidence-building is a two-way concept.”
APPENDIX: Translated Summaries of Selected Opinion Pieces
The conservative Fars News Agency writes in an editorial that while the diplomatic progress made in New York was widely noticed, it was merely a “culture-building” exercise to set the groundwork for diplomacy, while now, the actual hard work of trying to reach a deal begins. The agency writes that outside influences will seek to sabotage Iran’s interests: “From now on, the weapons and tools of power will be brought to the arena; the lobbies will make their role known and will clearly demonstrate their positions. That is, the task of Zarif and his team is in no way a simple one.” It discusses the mixed signals to emerge from the talks, citing positive words used by the White House and by Catherine Ashton while also citing Russian diplomat Sergei Ryabkov as saying that the progress made in Geneva was a few steps while the distance between the two sides’ positions was kilometers. However, among the lessons learned, he mentions that “The first step in Geneva was taken, and emphatically so, by the Iranian team,” in a reference to the proposal presented by Zarif. The site writes that one of the biggest unknowns is the effect Israel will be able to exert on the process: “The American team is soon to meet with a group of Israeli officials. Thus, the Zionist Regime not only will feel weakened by the Iranian proposal, but will try to exert influence and alter the American position to be in line with its demands, if there is significant difference between the American position and that of Tel Aviv.” Writing that media “tied to the Zionist regime” will try to sway world opinion against Iran, the agency concludes, “It is necessary that our foreign ministry must focus on acting so as to sway public opinion, at home and internationally.”
In the reformist Shargh, Khoshrow writes of progress being made in Geneva and emphasizes that the broad outlines of a deal can be successfully grasped by the two sides, but says a confidence-building measure by the United States would be very helpful to push the momentum forward and strengthen Iran’s diplomatic resolve. Thus, he says the U.S. must avoid losing the pro-negotiation public opinion that exists in Iran now. “If the Western team in the negotiations makes a symbolic gesture by announcing a suspension or lessening of the sanctions, it will be a form of positive response to the pro-engagement behavior of the new government and a step to advance the process of negotiations.” He also adds that the bilateral meetings held in Geneva were of great use for finding a way to meet the specific concerns of each P5+1 member, particularly the United States: “The meeting with the American team was important because, as has been said even by the leaders of the International Atomic Energy Agency many times, it is the Americans who put the most pressure on other nations to increase the sanctions and transform the legal and technological nature of our nuclear program into one thought of in the security sphere.” He says that while Iran’s right to enrichment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty must be recognized, Iran is ready to accept measures to assure the world of the peaceful nature of its program, and that there is room for a deal that will be comfortable for all parties.
In the reformist daily Etemaad, Khorram, the former permanent representative of Iran at the UN in Geneva, writes that the new administration in Iran has helped turn the diplomatic process from one of “negotiations for the sake of negotiations” in recent years to a serious dialogue aimed at obtaining a deal. But, he writes, the widespread support for Rouhani’s diplomacy in Iran should not be seen as a vindication of sanctions in the West, and Iran’s rights, most notably the right to enrich, must be fully respected. “This exaggerated takeaway has reached the extent that the participation of the majority of the people in the election and the change-oriented vote for Dr. Rouhani and the new and positive readiness of Iran for constructive negotiations with the P5+1 is seen as being due to the sanctions, which is not the case. Indeed, Iran in the current round of negotiations, will uphold the virtues of cooperation and constructive relations and will seek to transform ‘negotiations for the sake of negotiations’ into ‘negotiations for a result,’ but the condition for this is that the other side must, by understanding the place of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region and our country’s security needs, enter negotiations that will lead to a win-win outcome for the parties.”
Writing in the hardline Kayhan, Saadollah Zarei writes that the talk of confidence-building measures is not hopeful for Iran, as it is impossible to trust the United States. He writes that signing onto confidence-building measures indicates weakness and culpability – despite Iran’s work within the framework of the NPT – and will allow Iran’s enemies to wreak havoc on the Iranian system in the name of their supposed concerns. In the end, he writes, there is no guarantee the U.S. will accept Iran’s efforts to build confidence. “In encounters with the international system, particularly when we are facing enemies, we cannot start from the foundation of confidence-building measures, because in this foundation we accept that our previous behavior and actions were such as to cause serious concern for the other side, and that they led to this long-lasting conflict; that is, in this very first step we have to sign our names as being worthy of blame, and we let our rival write whatever they want above our signature, and then they say, ‘Very well, now answer these, say, 100 requests,’ and they have the permission, after each of our responses, to accept or reject what we say.” He references a Quranic reference urging one to trust fellow believers but doubt nonbelievers, and suggests that confidence building will not work as long as the Iran doesn’t have confidence in the word of the United States – “Confidence-building is a two-way concept,” he argues.
The question with this administration is, what will Trump see as an acceptable return for this waiver [granted to India for its trade with Russia and Iran]? Will he demand a transaction in return, some give on the trade side or a big defence deal for the US as well? Russia and Iran are sticking points, but the fact that the Trump administration is dealing with these privately is a sign of how much the relationship has changed. [Mr Trump] usually doesn’t give out freebies.
For all of us who care about preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb, what’s the best way to keep preventing that? [The JCPOA is] not perfect, but it’s something. These conventions are never based on the premise that all the parties are telling the truth, it’s about enforcement mechanisms. No arms control agreement is based in trust.