US, Iran Try to Narrow Gaps on Nuclear Deal

Against a backdrop of cautious optimism, Iran and six world powers known as the P5+1 are reconvening here for talks Nov. 7-8 over Tehran’s nuclear program.

“This government [of Hassan Rouhani] has a lot riding on the resolution of the nuclear issue because it made it a campaign promise and priority,” Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, told IPS.

But she stressed that even if the Iranians were desperate for a deal, Iran won’t give up certain bottom lines.

“The acceptance of a bad deal is politically even more dangerous for Rouhani than not reaching an agreement,” she said from Tehran in a phone interview.

One of Iran’s bottom lines includes what it considers its right to peacefully enrich uranium as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Iran is currently enriching uranium at the 20-percent level; the United States has argued that it prefers to see no enrichment inside Iran.

“We believe Iran does not have a right [to enrich uranium]. We don’t believe any country has a right [to do that],” said a senior U.S. administration official who spoke Wednesday on condition of anonymity.

But the official did concede that regardless of the US position, Iran is effectively enriching uranium.

“There’s a very big difference between right and program,” said the official.

While remaining tight-lipped about details, Iran and the United States have nonetheless expressed hopeful expectations for what this next round may lead to.

“I believe it is possible to reach an agreement during this meeting,” said Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, adding that a failure to reach a settlement this time wouldn’t be a “disaster” in an Oct. 5 France 24 interview.

After acknowledging that the last round of talks here on Oct. 15-16 involved “some progress”, the senior official argued that Washington is now looking for “an initial understanding that stops Iran’s nuclear program from moving forward for the first time in decades and that potentially rolls part of it back.”

“I do see the potential for the outlines of a first step…I do think it can be written on a piece of paper,” said the official, who did not elaborate on a timeline but added that the hope was for “sooner rather than later.”

Since Iran presented its new administration to the world in September at the U.N. General Assembly, it has also been expressing hope for an accelerated timeline for reaching a settlement.

“We think that the speedy settlement of this issue will benefit both sides,” said Rouhani, Iran’s new moderate president, on Sept. 26 in New York.

If the Zarif-led negotiating team is unable to bring home a negotiated “win” soon, those in Iran who oppose a warming of relations with the United States may regain the upper hand that they appear to have lost.

On Sunday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — persistently suspicious and critical of US intentions towards Iran — essentially told hardliners to allow Iran’s negotiating team to do their job unimpeded while rejecting optimism about the results of talks with the US

“No one should see our negotiating team as compromisers,” said Khamenei in a speech to an audience at his residence.

“They have undertaken a difficult mission and no one should undermine an agent on a mission,” he said.

“I do not think the negotiations will produce the results expected by Iran,” added the Ayatollah a day before the anniversary of the Nov. 4, 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran.

The Rouhani government has promised to better manage Iran’s deteriorating economy, which has been crippled by a harsh sanctions regime as well as mismanagement by the previous Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration.

Obtaining sanctions relief, particularly from those impacting its oil revenues and banking sector, remains a key Iranian goal.

While insisting that the core sanctions regime would remain in place, the senior administration official said Wednesday that “we are prepared to offer limited, targeted and reversible sanctions relief” in exchange for a substantial first step on the part of the Iranians towards resolving the international community’s concerns over its nuclear program.

In recent days, the Obama administration has lobbied Congress to pause the implementation of further sanctions that were passed in the House in July while talks are in progress.

The senior official expressed gratitude for Congress’ resolve in aiding the negotiation process through sanctions, but added that to pile more on now could prove more harmful than helpful.

“For the first time Iran appears to be committed to moving this negotiation process forward quickly,” said the official.

“It seems to me it’s worth a brief pause to test that notion,” the official added.

Unlike Israel and Congress, which appear adamant that pressure through sanctions must be maintained on Iran, some voices are arguing for a revision of current strategy.

On Tuesday, seven former European ambassadors to Iran urged all negotiating parties to operate on the premise that the time for reaching a deal is now and limited.

“The direction these negotiations take will determine whether Iran’s own situation will become even worse and its behavior more extreme, or whether it will make progress in welfare, civil liberties and human rights,” argued the ambassadors in the Israeli daily, Haaretz.

A group of prominent US foreign policy figures also applauded President Barack Obama’s attempt to pursue diplomacy with Iran and urged him to continue in a letter published Wednesday.

“Decades of distrust and lack of contact between the two countries will complicate the task of reaching agreements that will provide us the assurance we require that Iran’s nuclear program will be used only for peaceful purposes,” stated the 35 signatories, including the former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, the veteran diplomat, William H. Luers, and the former diplomat and hostage in Iran, John Limbert.

“You will undoubtedly face opposition to your decision to engage Iran. We support this new policy and pledge to help our fellow Americans appreciate the ambitious and transformative course you have chosen to build a more peaceful and more cooperative environment in the Middle East,” they wrote.

This report was made possible through the generous support of the Ploughshares Fund.

Jim Lobe’s blog on US foreign policy can be read at

Inter Press Service