The resumption of nuclear talks tomorrow between Iran and six world powers is surrounded by more optimism than at any other time in recent years, but few expect a quick breakthrough in the decade-old standoff over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Rejecting a key Western demand, Iran insisted yesterday it would not ship its enriched uranium stockpiles abroad. At the same time, it signalled flexibility on other major aspects of its nuclear programme.
“We will negotiate regarding the form, amount and various levels of [uranium] enrichment,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, said. But exporting the “enriched material is a red line for Iran”.
Since the last round of talks ended in stalemate in April, developments in Iran have renewed hopes of major improvement in ties between Tehran and the West.
Iranians have elected a moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani, who pledged to ease the international sanctions that have been imposed for Tehran’s alleged failure to comply with United Nations standards for transparency in its nuclear undertakings.
“It is good to have centrifuges running, provided people’s lives and livelihoods are also running,” he declared during his June election campaign.
Last month Mr Rouhani broke a central taboo of Iran’s postrevolutionary system by taking a phone call from an American leader. His 15-minute chat with Barack Obama was the first presidential-level contact between the two countries in 34 years.
Mr Rouhani says he wants a deal within six months on Iran’s nuclear programme in the hope of easing the sanctions and has appointed his well-regarded, US-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to oversee talks with the UN Security Council’s five permanent members — the US, Russia, China, Britain and France — plus Germany, who together make up the so-called P5+1.
“It’s looking better than before but it’s very, very far from a done deal,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group. “The process is very fragile and the opponents of diplomacy on both sides are doing everything they can to make sure that this effort fails.”
For now, Mr Rouhani has the backing of Iran’s hardline supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to explore the possibilities of a nuclear deal and to improve relations with Washington.
“The domestic political conditions in Tehran have never been as propitious for a settlement as they are today,” said Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Iran.
However, many Iran experts point out that Mr Obama enjoys no such latitude from the US Congress, making it questionable whether he can deliver on a promise to ease sanctions if Tehran does give ground.
“The anti-Iran vibe is something that unites all of [US] Congress, so Obama might not be able to offer Tehran much,” said Dina Esfandiary, a nuclear non-proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “This is ironic because this time, it seems the Iranians will show up and negotiate in good faith because Rouhani has Khamenei’s blessing.”
Mr Araqchi, the Iranian deputy foreign ministry, said Iran will present a “specific” new plan at the two-day talks in Geneva. But Tehran also expects the world powers to make new proposals.
Still on the table is a P5+1 offer to lift some economic sanctions in exchange for Iran’s suspension of its most pure uranium enrichment. According to Mr Zarif, however, that offer “belongs to history, and they must enter talks with a new point of view.”
Any interim deal is likely to focus on Iran’s halting enrichment of uranium to 20 per cent purity — a short technological leap from the 90 per cent purity of bomb-grade fissile material — and limiting the number of centrifuges it operates. Iran may also be prepared to allow access to a military site where it allegedly tested triggers for a nuclear warhead 10 years ago.
But Tehran wants guarantees before taking these steps. That means an explicit Western commitment to accept Iran’s right to a domestic nuclear fuel cycle at up to 5 per cent enrichment, which is sufficient for power generation. This would take place under strict international supervision. All sanctions would eventually be lifted in sequenced and reciprocal steps.
Hardliners in Tehran are ready to pounce if Mr Zarif offers too much in return for too little in Geneva, or if diplomacy fails to bring relief from sanctions soon.
Mistrust runs deep. Mr Khamenei last week branded the US government “untrustworthy, supercilious and unreasonable”, while Wendy Sherman, the US’s P5+1 negotiator with Iran, said of Tehran: “We know that deception is part of the [Iran’s] DNA.”
The US Congress and Israel are vehemently opposed to Iran’s enriching uranium at any level, saying that would still leave Tehran with the ability to produce weapons-grade material. Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful in nature and aimed at power generation and the production of medical isotopes for treating cancer patients.
The ability to enrich and maintain a uranium stockpile is crucial to Iran’s leaders. They have invested national prestige in a programme they champion as central to Iran’s scientific prowess and independence.
Ms Sherman urged Congress last week to wait until after the Geneva meeting before deciding whether to pass tough new sanctions against Tehran. The proposed new penalties include a total ban on Iranian oil exports and would further block Tehran’s ability to conduct international trade.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, suggested last week that Washington and its allies would reward Iran if it curbs its nuclear programme and offers more transparency on its atomic activities.
That will require the US to invest as “much ingenuity” in relieving sanctions against Iran as it has done in imposing them, Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Saban Centre at the Brookings Institution in Washington, wrote on her blog. “Because we are witnessing a real and significant effort by Tehran to dial back its confrontation with the world over the nuclear issue.”