Last week, just as the latest round of nuclear talks in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 were about to begin, I was talking on the phone to a friend in Tehran about Hassan Rouhani. ‘Now we will see if he’s serious,’ my friend said, ‘or if he’s just another Khatami. Another one of him we don’t need.’ Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997 on a far more reformist platform than Rouhani, only to find himself, and his attempts at change, blocked by hardliners throughout his presidency. So last week’s nuclear talks were the first test: of both Rouhani’s sincerity and his ability to get things done. Before the negotiations began, the Iranians promised to present a proposal that had the ‘capacity to make a breakthrough’.
No details of what was discussed have yet been disclosed – the talks were confidential – but diplomats on all sides were unusually positive. ‘I’ve been doing this for two years and I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before,’ one US official said. Iran’s foreign minister and chief negotiator, Javad Zarif, stressed that the P5+1 had displayed a ‘new approach’ to negotiations. Goodwill flowed liberally.
It needs to. The P5+1 still demand that Iran stop producing and stockpiling uranium enriched to 20 per cent U-235, which involves most of the work necessary to enrich to weapons-grade levels (80 per cent or above). They also want Iran to close its biggest enrichment plant, at Fordo, and to send a proportion of its stockpiles of low enriched uranium out of the country to prevent its possible use in a nuclear bomb.
Iran, however, insists it won’t relinquish its stockpiles of enriched uranium. According to the deputy foreign minster, Abbas Araqchi, who was doing most of the actual negotiating at Geneva, not ‘even a gram’ of uranium will be exported. At the same time, Iran wants the oil and banking sanctions that have scorched its economy to be lifted, and a recognition of its ‘inalienable right’ to enrich uranium – which is unacceptable to Israel as well as many in Washington.
The two sides remain far apart. But the talks have perhaps brought them closer together. In Geneva the US and Iranian delegations took time out from multilateral negotiations to meet for an hour, continuing a trend that began last month when Zarif and John Kerry met for the first face-to-face talks at the foreign minister level between Iran and the US since 1979. If the Iranian nuclear crisis is to be resolved, the US will have to play the major role in resolving it. Only Washington has the wherewithal to give Iran the sanctions relief and economic and political inducements it needs.
After the talks, an intriguing postscript appeared in press reports claiming that Iran has put together a proposal that includes a freeze on production of low enriched uranium and a promise to convert its LEU stockpile to fuel rods as well as an agreement to relinquish spent fuel for a still-to-be completed heavy water reactor, ‘according to an Iranian source who has proven reliable in the past’. Such a proposal would address almost all the P5+1’s demands, so the story is unlikely to be completely true. Iran would not give in so quickly and so easily. But it’s also the case that Iranians don’t leak – especially to Western media – without permission and without a clear purpose. Under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the leaks were constant, and almost always involved grumbling at the injustices of the negotiations; whoever is leaking now is delivering a clear message: everything is on the table.
Whether or not Rouhani will prove any more flexible on the substantive issues than Ahmadinejad is yet to be seen. It’s clear, though, that his promise to change Iran’s needlessly antagonistic diplomatic posture was sincere. The importance of this should not be discounted. Rouhani is starting to create an atmosphere in which reaching an agreement, after more than ten years of talks, is at least possible.