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Time to Talk to Iran

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: October 2, 2009

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Perhaps it was not surprising that after thirty years of diplomatic stalemate, expectations for a major breakthrough between Tehran and world powers in Geneva on October 1 were exceedingly low. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, in an interview with CFR.org, said while Iran was "optimistic about the talks," it was under no illusion resolution will be swift. A senior U.S. official, previewing the talks in a briefing with reporters on September 30, echoed the sentiment: "I think it's pretty safe to predict that this is going to be an extraordinarily difficult process."

Yet for all the measured words before the summit, the post-Geneva consensus is decidedly upbeat. Iran vowed to cooperate "fully" with UN inspectors; U.S. and Iranian negotiators met face-to-face in one of the most substantive bilateral contacts (Guardian) in decades; and more talks are already planned. As David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told CNN: "For the United States and Iran to sit down finally and start to talk about the significant differences between the two countries is extremely important, and I think it's long overdue." U.S. President Barack Obama said the "meeting was a constructive beginning, but it must be followed by constructive action by the Iranian government."

Complicating the meeting was the revelation of a new uranium enrichment plant near the city of Qom. Iran disclosed the plant in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on September 21 (Fars), but Obama--joined by the leaders of France and Britain--accused Tehran of concealment. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon followed up with calls for greater transparency from the Islamic Republic (NYT) on its nuclear program, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the outgoing head of the IAEA, said Iran should have alerted his agency about the plant the day construction began (VOA). Iran, meanwhile, denies it broke the law and insists its actions are legal. Mottaki, speaking with NPR, says the facility at Qom will enrich uranium for civilian power production.

Amid such disagreement, and even as superlatives like "significant," "historic," and "constructive" filter out from Geneva, it's not entirely clear what might constitute genuine progress. The New York Times reports that while the United States had hoped to begin bilateral talks with Iran on a broader relationship--including talks on trade and Tehran's support for terrorist groups--there remain doubts whether that can remain a goal. Iran, for its part, has been consistent in claims that it "will not compromise" (Press TV) on its nuclear program, or its right to enrich uranium. Instead, Mottaki says, Iran hoped to broaden the discussion to include economic and security-related partnerships. A vow to continue talks could be the best possible outcome, say some experts.

On the nuclear front, the roadmap is equally vague. As in previous negotiations, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana presented Iranian negotiators with a freeze-for-freeze proposal (PDF), where the United States and its allies would freeze further sanctions if Iran stops bringing centrifuges online. Past attempts at such a compromise have met resistance (Press TV), and there was no "complete answer" this time, Solana said. Another proposal analysts see as promising is a plan to transfer much of Iran's low-enriched uranium stocks to Russia and France, where it would be processed and returned to Iran for use in a Tehran research reactor. A senior U.S. official said Iran has agreed to this plan "in principle," but as a Reuters analysis notes, the pledge remains fraught with pitfalls.

If Western powers and Iran don't see eye-to-eye, at least they are sitting at the same table, some analysts suggest. Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, former National Security Council staffers, argue that the Obama administration should embrace the current climate and broaden its engagement (NYT) with the Iranian government. But Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says Obama should refrain from legitimizing (FP) President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, especially in the wake of Iran's contested presidential election. Either way, Washington appears to be readying a tougher stand should Iran fail to satisfy its demands. If talks are not seen as moving the needle, calls for a fresh round of tougher sanctions are likely to increase (WashTimes). "We're not interested in talking for the sake of talking," Obama said following the talks. "If Iran does not take steps in the near future to live up to its obligations, then the United States will not continue to negotiate indefinitely, and we are prepared to move towards increased pressure."

Background Material:

In an interview with CFR.org, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki says Iran will push for recognition of its legal right to enrich uranium, and seek to broaden negotiations to include political, economic, and security partnerships.

The package of proposals submitted by Iran before the Geneva talks focused on economic, political, and security-related issues, but not Iran's nuclear program.

Additional Analysis:

Nicholas Burns, former U.S. undersecretary for political affairs, writes in the Boston Globe that Iran's lie regarding the secret nuclear plant has given the United States the most important opportunity in years to pressure Tehran to forgo its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Robert Kagan says U.S. President Barack Obama should forget about Iranian nuclear developments and focus instead on Iranian instability and the regime's fight for survival.

Politico's Laura Rozen previews what to look for in Geneva.

Political scientist Joseph Nye says in an interview with CFR.org that the Obama administration's emphasis on multilateralism raises the prospects for dealing with Iran effectively on its nuclear program, but he expects no diplomatic breakthroughs in the short term.

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