GENEVA— Iranian negotiators will start meeting with the United Nations contact group in Geneva on Tuesday to see whether Tehran's change of government will help break the long deadlock over its nuclear program. Iran is enduring crippling economic sanctions as the U.N. presses for guarantees that it will not build a nuclear weapon, which Iran’s leaders say they do not want to do.
A rainy December day three years ago was the last time Iranian and international negotiators met in Geneva to talk about Iran's nuclear program. Those talks, like so many others, did not produce the compromises needed to reassure the United Nations about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
However, a lot has changed since then. In June, Iranians unexpectedly elected moderate Hassan Rouhani as president. His statements, especially at the United Nations General Assembly last month, offer new hope for progress, feels Iran expert Mark Fitzpatrick at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“I think Iran will come forward with something new. I doubt that it will be enough to make a big breakthrough, but maybe some small progress will be possible. And then additional meetings might create the possibility for more progress,” said Fitzpatrick.
However, after President Rouhani's foreign minister met with the U.N. contact group and agreed to further talks in Geneva - and after Rouhani spoke with U.S. President Barack Obama over the phone - the Iranian leader encountered criticism back home for moving too fast.
Meanwhile, President Obama had to appeal to the U.S. Congress not to add more sanctions against Iran just as the new diplomatic effort is getting started.
“Rouhani has got a real balancing act. He has to be able to placate his hardliners - just as President Obama has a lot of hardliners in the Congress who don’t want to provide sanctions relief, in fact want to add on more sanctions. So, finding the right balance is going to be very difficult,” explained Fitzpatrick.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is not convinced Iran’s new leaders have found that balance. Clinton, who was in office during several rounds of inconclusive Iran talks, commented on the upcoming talks while speaking at London’s Chatham House.
“In Geneva next week, I will be most interested in hearing if the Iranians are putting any meat on the bones of their hope that there can be a negotiation that leads to a resolution that is satisfying to them and acceptable to us. And I just think we don’t have any way of knowing that yet,” said Clinton.
Experts say the only thing they’re confident about, going into Geneva, is that it will be a long process, burdened by history, mistrust and conflicting goals.
While they hope for progress, they don’t expect any breakthroughs.