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October 16, 2013

Column: Iran Nuclear Talks in Geneva Get Down to Details

by Barbara Slavin

From the European venue to the power point presentation in English, this week’s nuclear negotiations with Iran showed a new seriousness that bodes well for a future agreement, even if it does not guarantee one.

Iranian officials from U.S.-educated Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on down spoke in English, dispensing with time-consuming translations, and outlined a new proposal specifying an “endgame” to the nuclear dispute and a staged process to get there.

Both sides brought technical experts who began to discuss the proposal in detail while agreeing to meet again before another plenary session Nov. 7-8 in Geneva -- not Almaty or Baghdad or somewhere else logistically difficult, as prior Iranian negotiators have demanded.  The Iranians also dispensed with their usual litany of complaints against the West for imposing sanctions on Iran and for what they say is a “double standard” that holds Iran to a greater degree of compliance with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty than other signatories.

At the end, Zarif and EU high representative for foreign affairs Catherine Ashton issued a joint statement – something which has not occurred in previous rounds.
The statement described the talks as “substantive and forward looking,” and said that Iran’s outline was “being carefully considered” by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China (the P5+1) and that “nuclear, scientific and sanctions experts will convene before the next meeting to address differences and to develop practical steps."

In a brief press conference that followed, Ashton said that the two days of talks were “the most detailed we’ve ever had by a long way” and that both sides had set out their positions on “a number of issues.”

While the Iranian proposal – and the P5+1 positions – were not made public, Iranian officials have suggested that they are willing to limit the quality and quantity of their nuclear program and accept more stringent international monitoring in return for sanctions relief and outside acceptance of some level of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil. These officials have also made clear that they do not expect the U.S. Congress to repeal sanctions at the start of the process – something Congress assuredly would not do – but hope the U.S. executive branch will use its authority to ease pressure on the Iranian economy in return for the Iranian steps - and convince Congress not to pass new sanctions.

The composition of the U.S. team was instructive in that regard. Among the participants was Adam Szubin, head of the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which polices U.S. and international financial transactions with the Islamic Republic to make sure they abide by U.S. law. There is much that Szubin could do to signal U.S. goodwill, including opening a direct U.S.-Iran banking channel for trade in humanitarian goods such as food and medicine. While U.S. law exempts such trade from sanctions, U.S. medicine in particular has not been getting into Iran because U.S. suppliers can’t find a practical method of getting paid. The same problem applies to European humanitarian transactions with Iran.

Iran, of course, also needs to show good faith by not adding to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and to the 10,000 centrifuges currently spinning away in its nuclear facilities. It would also help if a reactor at Arak -- which when operational, would produce plutonium, another potential bomb fuel – is not completed.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, in a statement released on Wednesday at the conclusion of the Geneva talks, said he welcomed “the more positive approach taken by the Iranian Government,” that Zarif “presented a basis for negotiations and … diplomats have for the first time begun more substantive discussions with Iran on how to address the international community's serious concerns about Iran's nuclear program.”

But Hague continued, “we should not forget that Iran’s nuclear program is continuing to develop,” while the talking continues. “There is a great deal of hard work ahead, but we must not waste this opportunity.”