Wendy Sherman, who will head the U.S. negotiating team in nuclear talks… (Molly Riley / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — After a decade of stalemate, diplomats from Iran, the U.S. and five other nations are about to meet for talks that will provide the clearest evidence yet of whether recent signs of a thaw in relations presage an agreement over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Iran wants assurances at the talks Tuesday and Wednesday in Geneva that if it plunges into serious negotiations, it might win international approval to enrich uranium. Although uranium enriched at low levels is used to fuel civilian power plants, many nations fear that Iran, despite denials, wants to enrich it to high levels for use in bombs.
But also high on the Iranians' wish list is speedy relief from international sanctions that have crippled their economy. The country's diplomats have dangled promises that Iran's government will halt or limit important parts of its advancing nuclear program if sanctions are eased.
The Obama administration and its European allies, frustrated by 10 years of fruitless negotiations, want to see Iran take steps to curb the nuclear program right away and to delay most of the rewards until later.
"We will know in the next short period of time whether there is anything serious and real here or not," Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of State for political affairs, who heads the U.S. negotiating team, recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
At the Senate hearing, she warned the Iranians that "this is your opportunity" and that if they failed to present a credible proposal in Geneva, the Senate probably would move ahead with a measure that would impose a near-total trade embargo.
Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been trying to create a sense of urgency around the talks, suggesting that time is short to reach a deal before hard-liners put a stop to their outreach campaign. Last week, Zarif said on his Facebook page that he briefly checked into a hospital to seek relief from distress caused by attacks on his efforts.
Hard-liners have kept up pressure on Rouhani and his allies. On Friday, a leading conservative cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, labeled President Obama a "liar" and revived the "Death to USA" chant at official Friday prayers at Tehran University. The slogan had faded from prominence in recent weeks.
Some Western officials have accused Rouhani and his colleagues of stage-managing a public relations campaign to extract concessions.
"They have a clever campaign going to build pressure for quick commitments," said a Western diplomat at the United Nations, who, like others, declined to be identified in advance of the sensitive negotiations. "But I think the attitude in Geneva will be, 'Prove your good faith first.'"
Iran would like to secure a statement from the six world powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States — signaling acceptance of the nation's uranium enrichment. Such a statement would provide what Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, has called a "veneer of legality" for a nuclear program that has been a major reason for Iran's international isolation.
Winning that concession would strengthen Tehran's arguments that the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency no longer needs to dig into the Iranian program's 30-year history, which inspectors and outside critics have said would show consistent flouting of international rules. And recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium might make it harder for countries such as the U.S. and Israel to build international support for a military attack to destroy the vast Iranian nuclear complex.
U.S. officials have given signals that they might be flexible on the enrichment issue, which has been at the core of negotiations, but they don't want to give away such a valuable concession too early in the talks. First, they want small tit-for-tat steps to ensure that Iran really would rein in a program that is a source of national pride and legitimacy for the government.
At the Senate hearing, Sherman signaled that the administration might ease its position on enrichment once the horse-trading begins. Both sides had laid out "maximalist positions," she said. "And then you begin a negotiation."
Obama's optimism about the prospects for talks is widely taken to be a sign that he has received private assurances that Iran is willing to give ground. But Western diplomats and private experts say it remains difficult to assess the Iranian proposals until it is known specifically what Tehran will offer and what it wants in return.
Some experts expect Iran to roll out major concessions at the meeting to build pressure for an easing of sanctions and a statement on its access to domestic enrichment. The Russians and Chinese, who have supported easing sanctions, might look favorably on such a gesture.