WASHINGTON — U.S. and Iranian diplomats meet in Geneva Monday and Tuesday for direct talks on Iran’s controversial nuclear program ahead of a looming July 20 deadline to reach a final agreement. As full international negotiations are set to resume next week, the U.N. atomic energy agency has indicated Tehran is showing some signs of cooperation in the investigation into the military aspects of Iran's program.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who took part in secret negotiations with Iran to reach an interim nuclear agreement last November, heads the U.S. delegation. A senior U.S. official quoted by the Reuters news agency said that in order to test whether a diplomatic solution on Iran’s nuclear program is possible, “we believe we need to engage in very active and very aggressive diplomacy.”
On Sunday, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araqhchi, told state-run Iranian television the meeting will also include an official from the European Union. He said the talks have entered a “serious phase.” The United States and Iran are part of larger international talks on Tehran’s nuclear program involving six countries: the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany. That grouping is known as the P5+1.
The next round of those talks in Vienna begins June 16. The last round in May is said by a senior Obama administration official to have been “slow and difficult” with significant gaps in the negotiating positions remaining. He said the goal remains to insure that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon, and that its program must be for peaceful purposes.
Last month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran is committed to solving the dispute. Tehran is seeking an easing of international sanctions, while the P5+1 seek to curb Iran’s uranium enrichment program.
Last week, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said progress on curbing Iran’s nuclear program has been made since Rouhani came to power a year ago:
"We have made much more progress under the Rouhani administration, I think, for a variety of reasons, one of which is he was elected in large part on a platform of needing economic reform. And, they know the only way they can truly get the kind of economic relief they need is if they get a comprehensive agreement here, because they're not going to get it right now. So, I think on the nuclear side, look, we have a long way to go and we don’ know if we’ll get there, but we've seen progress on that side that we, quite frankly, hadn't seen in a long time," said Harf.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has for years been investigating whether Iran has been coordinating efforts to process uranium, test explosives and revise a ballistic missile cone suitable for a nuclear warhead. Iran insists the allegations are false. IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said last week Iran has begun to engage substantively on these matters, but also said more cooperation is needed.
Jonathan Adelman, associate professor at the University of Denver’s Kobel School of International Studies, said Iran has not been fully transparent toward the IAEA or international negotiators.
"There is the Parchin nuclear reactor, which we haven’t had any ability to actually inspect. I think the biggest issue is the whole question that the Iranians have declared that their missile program is off-limits, and given that they’re working on ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), they’ve already had multi-stage satellites twice now putting little animals into orbit, they’re very close, as the New York Times said, by 2020, if not before, they’ll have ICBMs. But, I think the biggest issue is the atmospherics of these talks. If you read the Iranian press, and you can read it in English every single day now, the Iranians are declaring a massive victory, they have triumphed and they’re going to be able to keep almost all of their nuclear program," said Adelman.
Adelman expects the July 20 deadline for a final agreement will have to be pushed back. Meanwhile, he warned, both Iran’s nuclear and missile programs continue to advance. He said that is why there is growing urgency to reach a breakthrough in these talks.
As for Israel, Adelman said there is a growing conviction there that the negotiating process will not succeed and the only thing that will halt Iran’s nuclear program is Israeli military action.