A stumble in Geneva, but Iran nuclear talks still have legs

Differences over how much to demand of Tehran prevented a dramatic deal, but the process continues

Glasses half full? No deal but talks continue
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Three days of intensive talks between Iran and world powers ended early Sunday in Geneva without a breakthrough, but with an agreement among the parties to meet again in 11 days to continue their effort to conclude an agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

The principal players in the talks – European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry – all sought to put a positive spin on the failure to reach accord. By all accounts, after all, the parties were far closer to reaching agreement than they have been for the best part of a decade.

Still, the longer the delay now that the parties have put their cards on the table, the more time opponents of rapprochement with Iran – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia, some members of the U.S. Congress and hard-liners in Tehran --  will have to undercut prospects for success by demanding tougher terms.

Ashton and Zarif closed the talks with a terse statement that comprised all of four sentences:  

"We have just come from a long meeting this evening with the E3+3 ministers, after three days of intense and constructive discussions. A lot of concrete progress has been achieved but some differences remain. We want to thank the ministers who came and joined us and we want to thank our Swiss and UN hosts. Minister Zarif and I will reconvene together with the Iranian negotiating team and the E3+3 political directors here on the 20th of November.”

By scheduling another meeting so soon, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1 or as the Europeans call it, the E3+3) and Iran seek to maintain the momentum of the negotiations. But despite upbeat language from Zarif, Ashton and Kerry, major impediments clearly remain.

The Arak question

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One key concern is whether Iran will continue construction work on a heavy-water reactor at Arak that when completed and brought online, would produce plutonium (weapons-grade nuclear materiel) as an element of its spent fuel. 

“It’s a very central issue,” Kerry acknowledged at press conference at 2am Geneva time. “We spent a significant amount of time” discussing it. 

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was the first to publicly raise Arak, suggesting that Iran had not yet offered enough concessions regarding the reactor to satisfy French proliferation concerns. The facility is unlikely to be completed for some time and Iran does not have the technology to separate the plutonium from the spent fuel. But once the reactor goes on line, it would be too dangerous to bomb because that would spew radioactive materials.

France has taken a tougher line on the Iranian nuclear program than all of its current Western partners, both under the conservative presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy and continuing under the socialist Francois Hollande. Despite some press reports suggesting that the other negotiators were surprised by France’s position, they should not have been blindsided since France's positions had been  telegraphed before the talks began.

In their concluding remarks, Ashton, Zarif and Kerry did not criticize the French or apportion blame for the failure to reach an agreement.

“We agreed with the French,” Kerry said.

“France plays an important role,” Ashton stressed.

“I am grateful to all of them [foreign ministers from the P5+1] for being here and helping the process,” Zarif echoed.

Dotting i's and crossing t's

The crux of the negotiations concern Iran’s desire to retain its existing nuclear infrastructure while offering to curb the level of uranium enrichment and provide greater access to international monitors to ensure that it will not build nuclear weapons. In return, Iran wants relief from sanctions that are crushing its economy. Although the initial focus is on interim first steps that will last about six months, the Iranians have also sought clarity about the end state which those interim steps are designed to reach.

Critics of a deal, including Netanyahu, seek an end to Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium, including the dismantling of much if not all of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. The Israeli prime minister late last week denounced the reported outlines of an accord as a “historic mistake” and the “deal of the century” for Iran.

Kerry, who abruptly left Israel on Friday without a scheduled photo op with the Israeli leader, did not criticize Netanyahu in Geneva. “We have enormous respect for the concerns of our allies,” he said, without naming them. The U.S. remains “committed,” Kerry said, to preventing nuclear proliferation and “protecting our allies.” The next 11 days will give the parties time to go home and “make sure we are dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s,” Kerry said. “I feel very confident this can be done.”

Back in Washington, however, some members of Congress are lobbying to impose new sanctions as soon as possible. It remains to be seen if the White House can convince Senate leaders to block a vote on a bill and prevent a sanctions amendment from being tacked onto a piece of must-pass legislation such as the annual defense spending authorization. 

In Iran, meanwhile, the failure to reach an agreement in a second round of talks in as many months means that President Hassan Rouhani – who campaigned on a promise of “constructive engagement” with the West and achieving sanctions relief – will pass the milestone of the first 100 days of his presidency without a significant foreign policy achievement. While the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has admonished hard-line elements to give Rouhani and Zarif a chance, there may be limits to the “heroic flexibility” Khamenei has offered.

Kerry, in his comments to the press, acknowledged that “it takes time to build confidence between countries that have been at odds for a long time.”

Indeed, if there was one bright spot in Geneva for advocates of diplomatic engagement, it was that senior U.S. and Iranian officials spent hours talking to each other both alone and with others present. Such contacts – which once would have been unthinkable on both sides – have now become almost routine.

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