International

Serious progress and a familiar road map at Iran nuclear talks

Analysis: Can negotiators achieve a deal on which they previously balked?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses a news conference following nuclear negotiations on Wednesday.
Ruben Sprich/Reuters

GENEVA — After years of disappointment and awkward exchanges that only exacerbated tensions, this week's nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers concluded on an almost effusive note. That and the media silence adopted by both sides on the substance of the Geneva talks were clear signs that significant progress had been made. Both sides appear to have invested in the success of the negotiations rather than partaking of the more familiar habit of describing and critiquing the other side's positions. 

"I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward and candid conversations with the Iranian delegation," a senior U.S. official told reporters. A joint statement issued by delegation leaders Catherine Ashton, representing the P5+1 group (which comprises the U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany), and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described the talks as "substantive and forward looking." Zarif at one point during the press conference even called his counterparts "our friends in the P5+1" while expressing hope for a new phase in relations between the countries. Still, no details of the substantive negotiations were released, and the long and complicated process of reconciling Western demands for verifiable limits on Iran's nuclear activities and Tehran's demand for relief from crippling sanctions will continue in a new round of talks scheduled for November.

Zarif had good reason to feel content. For one thing, this round of talks saw the initiative in Tehran's hands, with Western delegates responding to an Iranian proposal that was at the center of proceedings. And it appears to present a more complete and comprehensive plan for resolving the standoff than the proposals presented by the P5+1 in earlier rounds of talks. Previous Western proposals had set out the first two steps in a step-by-step process, while leaving both the ensuing steps and the endgame undefined. The Iranian proposal, on the other hand, broadly defines the entire process from beginning to end, with a particular emphasis on the final steps. 

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As previously explained on Al Jazeera, Western willingness for the first time to discuss the endgame is a major shift. Ashton acknowledged as much in comments to the media. "We know we have to look for a first step," she said. "We also have to be extremely clear going forward on what we consider to be the last step." 

This shift is critical from the Iranian perspective. Tehran's bottom line is that the process be based on an end state that entails the West's acceptance that — at the end of the process in which Iran accepts measures to verify the peaceful intent of its program — there will be limited uranium enrichment on Iranian soil, albeit under stricter inspections. If such an outcome is accepted in principle, the Iranians appear willing to demonstrate significant flexibility on the exact limitations they would be required to accept on their nuclear work.

But this is not yet a done deal. 

Crucial details on technical matters and the sequencing of steps each side would take to resolve the standoff remain to be worked out. But the pace of the process has clearly changed. The next round of talks has been scheduled for the first week in November — only three weeks away. Prior to that, technical experts from both sides will meet to hash out details on sanctions relief as well as sequencing matters.

Even as the contours of the endgame are being discussed, it's worth noting that the central parameters of a final deal have hardly changed at all over the last decade, in spite of the steady escalation of the standoff by both sides.

In March 2005, years before the Obama administration's crippling sanctions were imposed, the Iranian government provided another comprehensive, step-by-step proposal to the EU aimed at ending the nuclear standoff. It was prepared and presented by the very same people who today once again — as a result of the recent Iranian election — are running Iran's foreign policy: President Hassan Rouhani, then the nuclear negotiator, and Foreign Minister Zarif, then U.N. ambassador.

That four-phase proposal included significant limitations to Iran's enrichment program, such as a ceiling on the enrichment level, limiting Iran's centrifuges to no more than 3,000 (it currently has 19,000) and implementation of the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would significantly increase the transparency of the program and the intrusiveness of inspections.

At the time, the European powers hewed to the Bush administration line that there could be no enrichment of uranium in Iran, for fear that this would give Tehran the technological capability to produce bomb materiel. Even a strictly limited and more tightly monitored enrichment program was not acceptable. As a result, Europe did not even present a formal response to Iran's 2005 proposal.

Tehran responded to this refusal to accept what it deemed its nuclear rights by ending its voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol and suspension of enrichment. But the West viewed the restarting of the uranium-enrichment program as a major provocation, and since then the two sides have been trapped in a game of perpetual escalation. Iran expanded its nuclear program, built more centrifuges, added an underground nuclear site, began enriching to the 20 percent level that took it far closer to bomb grade and began stockpiling enriched uranium. The Western powers responded by taking Iran to the U.N. Security Council, which demanded a suspension of enrichment, intensified Iran's isolation and, after 2010, began imposing crippling sanctions that have devastated the Iranian economy.

Neither side's escalation, however, has prompted the other to capitulate, but both have suffered a high cost. Iran may finally win Western acceptance for limited enrichment on its own soil, but its economy is now crushed. The West may be able to secure limitations to Iran's nuclear program, but those same limitations could have been achieved eight years ago without sanctions — and now the limitations will be imposed on a nuclear program that has grown much more advanced and sophisticated.

So, even as they express relief and enthusiasm over this week's Geneva encounter, both sides know they face an arduous diplomatic journey. But knowing that escalation has failed to resolve the standoff, their incentive to succeed at diplomacy has become all the greater.

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