WASHINGTON - There’s an element of deja vu about next week's planned talks in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program.
Four years ago, the United States and Iran reached a tentative agreement on a confidence building measure that would have sent out most of Iran’s stockpile of lightly enriched uranium in return for fuel for a reactor that makes medical isotopes. The deal was reached in bilateral talks led by then Undersecretary of State William Burns and then Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili. But it collapsed because of a lack of political support in Iran, still reeling after disputed 2009 presidential elections.
History could repeat itself Oct. 15-16 in Geneva but this time, if an agreement is reached, the chances for it to hold up look better. Indeed, conditions for progress between the US and Iran are far more propitious than they were four years ago:
Iran’s domestic politics are much more cohesive since the surprise election in June of President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani, a veteran Iranian official and former nuclear negotiator with far fewer enemies in Iran’s fractious political system than his predecessors, won a clean majority in the first round of voting and has the full backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
U.S. President Barack Obama is in his second term and thus does not have to worry about alienating voters by showing flexibility in talks with Iran. What is more, given the current chaotic situation in the Middle East, Iran offers a rare prospect for a solid foreign policy legacy that could also help defuse the civil war in Syria, persuade Israel not to conduct a risky attack on Iran and lessen Iran’s motivation to spoil a potential Arab-Israeli peace agreement.
Iran needs a deal that will ease draconian economic sanctions and pull the country out of recession. For years, the Iranian economy has underperformed compared to other countries of similar size and development; in the past three years, Iranian oil exports have been halved and the value of the Iranian currency has dropped by two thirds due to US-led sanctions on the petroleum sector and banks. Rouhani campaigned on a promise to improve the economy and has pledged to show results within his first 100 days.
In the lead-up to next week’s talks, both the U.S. and Iran have been hinting at concessions while trying to look resolute.
Iranian officials in New York for the past two weeks attending the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly have told Americans that they are prepared to offer a significant new proposal that would curb the uranium enrichment program and provide more transparency to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, in return for some sanctions relief. At the same time, however, the Iranians have stressed that they need to see the “endgame” - what configuration of nuclear facilities would be acceptable to the international community and what sanctions would be lifted under a final settlement - before taking the first step.
The U.S. and its negotiating partners, for their part, has said they will put back on the table an offer made during previous talks earlier this year that would end sanctions on Iranian petrochemical exports and the purchase of precious metals in return for Iran suspending production of 20 percent enriched uranium and temporarily stopping enrichment at an underground site called Fordow. Iran rejected the proposal last spring but that was before sanctions really began to bite and when the president was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Jalili was still Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.
The Iranians know that if no progress is achieved next week in Geneva, they will face more sanctions. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, urged Congress to hold off on passing new legislation until after the Geneva meetings - an easy call given the current U.S. government shutdown. But she warned that if Iran does not “come on Oct. 15-16 with that substantive plan that is real and verifiable, our Congress will take action, and we will support them to do so.”
However, Sherman also refused - under tough questioning by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to rule out uranium enrichment on Iranian soil, which appears to be an Iranian red line.
Rhetoric on both sides still occasionally lapses back into the demonizing patterns of the past 34 years. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned again last week that the U.S. cannot be trusted to keep its word -- even as he endorsed Rouhani's efforts -- while Iranians bristled when Obama, after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, referred to their government as a “regime,” and Sherman accused them of having “deception in their DNA.”
Still, both sides know an opportunity when they see one.
Iran’s U.S.-educated Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is leading the nuclear negotiations for his country, has already met alone for 30 minutes with Secretary of State John Kerry in New York last month, so it’s no diplomatic stretch for Zarif to sit down in Geneva with Sherman, who has been leading U.S. negotiations with Iran for the past two years.
As Zarif said after his meeting with Kerry, “I’m optimistic. I have to be. Political leaders need to be optimistic about the future and make every commitment to go forward for the cause of peace. This was a good beginning. I sense that Secretary Kerry and President Obama want to resolve this.”
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America. (see more of Barbara Slavin's columns)
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