GENEVA— A senior U.S. official in Geneva has expressed optimism about the talks on Iran's nuclear program that resume there on Thursday. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters there have been "very detailed discussions" and the two sides are heading towards a first stage agreement. The United Nations contact group and Iran are working on mutual first steps toward stopping aspects of Iran's nuclear program and easing international sanctions.
The first round of talks, just three weeks ago, was praised by both sides for having a new atmosphere and for a potentially useful new Iranian proposal. With a total of seven nations and the European Union sending delegations to the talks, no one provided details on the proposal, which negotiators said was a sign of the seriousness of the discussions.
From what little is known, Iran wants to agree on the ultimate target of the talks and also on a series of intermediate steps designed to build mutual trust and ease economic sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy.
The United Nations delegation - made up of the five permanent Security Council members and Germany, and led by the EU - wants guarantees that Iran's nuclear program will not lead to the production of a nuclear bomb.
Analysts believe Iran is already dangerously close to doing that, and the United States and Israel have threatened military action to stop the potential final stages of development.
Key questions include whether Iran will provide enough transparency and accept enough restrictions on its nuclear program to satisfy the U.N. team, and whether the international community will ease sanctions quickly enough to satisfy hardliners in Iran.
Many experts are skeptical, but in an interview, the chief U.S. negotiator, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, told VOA's Persian News Network she saw “a very different approach” in the last round of talks.
“We are beginning to understand each other, to see each other’s needs and the aspirations of the people of each of our countries. And I think that’s very valuable," said Sherman.
Sherman says there are other issues on which the United States and Iran can work together but only after the nuclear dispute is resolved. Analysts say potentially chief among those issues is the Syrian civil war.
In this week's talks, the negotiators will review the results of a technical meeting last week, intended to clarify some aspects of the Iranian proposal. The topics are extremely technical, involving levels of enrichment of nuclear fuel and the eventual unraveling of complex sanctions.
One achievement of the new approach has been a reduction in talk of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Iran has slowed its enrichment and research activities, but Professor Alexandre Vautravers of the Geneva Center for Security Policy says talk of war will return if these negotiations do not make significant progress fairly quickly.
“The greatest risk is slowing down the process or stalling the process, because, let’s be very clear, we’re talking on a window of opportunity. This window of opportunity may all of a sudden close. We have to be cognizant and aware of this time factor, which is extremely critical," said Vautravers.
The negotiators know they are under time pressure and both sides say they are ready to move quickly. The first meeting, last month, was important for starting a new process. This one could indicate whether real progress is possible.