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Iran, 6 world powers praise 'forward looking' nuclear talks

After weeks of soaring hopes, the two sides provide few details, but agree on a joint statement that signals a commitment to a diplomatic solution.

October 16, 2013|By Paul Richter
  • Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif leaves a news conference after two days of talks in Geneva. The Iranian blames pressure from hard-liners in his country for his intense back pain that has left him nearly immobilized.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif leaves a news conference… (Fabrice Coffrini / AFP/Getty…)

GENEVA — With both sides desperate for a deal, Iran and six world powers Wednesday hailed a new round of negotiations on Tehran's disputed nuclear program as "substantive and forward looking," and set an accelerated schedule of meetings to determine whether they can find common ground after a decade of stalemate.

The discussions, begun at a moment of widespread hope for progress, were described as difficult and tense at times. Yet the Iranians and the global powers agreed on a joint statement that praised each side and signaled a commitment to a diplomatic solution.

A senior U.S. official said that in years of diplomacy the two sides had never had such "intense, detailed, straightforward, candid" talks. The Iranian government, which until the arrival of a new administration in August had been mostly hostile to world pressure against the program, praised the discussions in the state-controlled press.

The six world powers are eager to reach a deal because of widespread concern that Iran may be as little as six months from reaching nuclear weapons capability. Iran badly needs an agreement that will ease the U.S. and European sanctions that have battered its economy and increased its international isolation.

Hopes for a deal have been soaring because of two months of overtures from both the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, and President Obama. The two men talked by telephone Sept. 27, breaking a 34-year silence between the nations' leaders.

On Wednesday, however, the two sides provided few details of their talks, leaving it unclear whether Iran has come any closer to accepting immediate curbs on the nuclear program. It was also unclear whether the United States and the five other powers were any closer to lifting the crippling economic punishments on Iran, or eventually acceding to Iran's demand that it be allowed to enrich uranium, which in highly enriched form can be used as nuclear bomb fuel.

This lack of visible proof of Iran's new commitment may draw fire from Congress, which has demanded quick and "verifiable" proof that Iran has had a change of heart, and from wary U.S. allies, such as Israel and the Persian Gulf states, who fear the Obama administration might be too eager to appease Tehran.

Sen. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), one of the principal sponsors of sanctions legislation, said Wednesday that the Senate "should immediately move forward with a new round of economic sanctions targeting all remaining Iranian government revenue and reserves."

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, head of the U.S. negotiating team, had appealed to members of Congress this month to delay any action until this week, so that Iran could lay out a new proposal that proved its willingness to cooperate.

Diplomats said they were unwilling to provide many details of the negotiations for fear that they would stir opposition that would undermine the diplomacy.

There were, at the least, some signs of good chemistry between Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's American-educated foreign minister, and other diplomats.

Zarif, who has been almost immobilized this week by intense back pain, was offered sympathy, remedies, and even titles of books on back ailments by the American diplomats, the senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomacy. Zarif has laid blame for the pain on attacks leveled on him by hard-line critics of his government's outreach to the United States.

Some observers worry that if the talks collapse, the administration will be left to adjust to the reality of an Iranian nuclear capability — which Obama has said he would not accept — or unleash a military attack.

The six powers — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — said negotiators would meet again in Geneva on Nov. 7 and 8, and probably soon thereafter as well. In the meantime, technical experts will meet to discuss details of nuclear safeguards and sanctions issues. Previous meetings with Iran on nuclear issues tended to be at least several months apart.

There were signs that the diplomats were grappling in the meetings with the sensitive issue of whether Iran should, at the close of negotiations, be granted an international blessing to enrich uranium at least to low levels.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said during a news conference that the two sides tried in the meeting to lay a path for the negotiations that would cover both small initial steps to build mutual confidence, and the final stage of the talks. She said the delegations were using a plan offered Tuesday by Iran as the basis for discussion.

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