Although it seemed the whole world was transfixed by the political drama unfolding in Washington this week, another important development occurred in Geneva when it appeared for the first time that Iran may be prepared to drop its plans for a nuclear weapons system in exchange for an end to the sanctions that have done so much harm to the Iranian economy.
After two days of talks, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Catherine Ashton, the foreign policy chief for the European Union, issued a joint statement that reflected the mood of optimism that had developed between the two sides.
“I’ve been doing this now for about two years, and I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before,” an unidentified senior official in the Obama administration told reporters.
Negotiators from the six world powers have long been stymied by Iran’s intransigence on the nuclear weapons issue, but all that began to change in June when a new president, Hassan Rouhani, was elected by the Iranian people and, unlike his bellicose predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he immediately made it clear he wanted to reestablish positive relations with these six powers, including, of course, the United States.
For the first time in many years, diplomats told reporters, they actually engaged in detailed discussions about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, set the tone of the Geneva gathering by speaking in English instead of Farsi. It may seem like a small concession, but it signaled a serious change in Iran’s approach to the negotiations. Zarif even used a Power Point presentation on his laptop computer to describe his country’s plans to bring an end to the nuclear weapons dispute.
Although this week’s talks generated welcome optimism, there’s a long way to go before the two sides settle their differences. And the level of trust remains a factor in the negotiations.
Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister and a participant in the Geneva talks, took a far more cautious approach than some of his fellow negotiators. He told the Russian news agency Interfax that the two sides were still “kilometers apart” and that the talks had been “difficult, at times tense, at times unpredictable.”
Even so, it seems abundantly clear that for the first time there is reason to believe the negotiations may actually lead to a positive result.
“A key challenge will be to reach agreement on an interim measure that balances the ... desire to halt advances in Iran’s nuclear program with Iran’s desire for early sanctions relief,” said Robert Einhorn, a senior adviser to the State Department.
Some American allies — Saudi Arabia and Israel, for example — are reportedly worried that in its eagerness to reach a satisfactory solution to the Iranian problem, the Obama administration may make risky concessions to Tehran.
So Secretary of State John Kerry is planning to explain the administration’s position to his Saudi counterpart. Also, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to express his nation’s concerns when he meets Kerry in Rome next week.
Given Iran’s hostile behavior in the past, skepticism about its sudden transformation is justified. But its recent moderate stance is a welcome development that the United States should encourage, albeit cautiously.