Iran, U.S. Push Nuclear Diplomacy

Kelsey Davenport

Following a high-level series of diplomatic exchanges and meetings between U.S. and Iranian leaders in late September, both sides say there is a strong basis for a diplomatic resolution to the long-running impasse over Iran’s nuclear program.

In the highest level of contact between the two governments since 1979, President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by telephone about Iran’s nuclear program Sept. 27, Obama told reporters at a White House news conference later that day.

“While there will surely be important obstacles” and success is not guaranteed, “I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution” to the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program, Obama said.

“[T]he test will be meaningful, transparent, and verifiable actions” by Iran that would “bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions,” he said.

Obama’s conversation with Rouhani followed a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations on Sept. 26 that Kerry described as “constructive.” Zarif’s presentation to six world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) on the nuclear negotiations had a tone that was different from the one Iran had taken in previous meetings with the group, known as the P5+1, and was “very different in the vision” of possibilities for the future, Kerry said afterwards.

Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have been intermittent and largely unproductive for more than a decade. The P5+1 met three times with Iran in 2012 and once each in February and April 2013, but failed to reach an agreement.

The two sides will resume talks in Geneva on Oct. 15-16, a senior State Department official said during a press briefing following the Sept. 26 meeting.

Kerry said that he hoped the negotiations lead to “concrete results that will answer the outstanding questions” about Iran’s nuclear program. Zarif, speaking later that evening at an event organized by the Asia Society in New York, said that he was “optimistic” about negotiations and now the parties need to “match our words with actions.”

In a statement following the Sept. 26 meeting, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the head negotiator for the P5+1, said that the group had put forward a proposal that would remain on the table. (See ACT, May 2013.) Iran can “respond directly” to that proposal or put forward its own at the October meeting, she said.

One-Year Timetable

Zarif said he and Kerry “agreed to jump-start the process” and move to agree “first, on the parameters of the end game.” Iran and the P5+1 will think about the order of steps that need to be implemented to “address the immediate concerns of [the] two sides” and move toward finalizing a deal within a year, Zarif said.

The senior State Department official said that Iran was “urged” to “add some substance” to the ideas presented during the meeting and share some details before talks resume Oct. 15.

The Sept. 26 meeting marked the first set of talks the P5+1 had with Iran under Rouhani, who took office Aug. 3 and is widely seen as more moderate than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Obama said in a Sept. 24 speech at the UN that he made it clear in letters to Rouhani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that Washington prefers to resolve its concerns over Iran’s nuclear program “peacefully” but remains determined to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon. Obama said the United States “respects the right of the Iranian people to access nuclear energy.”

Since his election, Rouhani made several speeches indicating that Tehran was more serious about making a deal. In his address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 24, he said that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and nuclear weapons have “no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine.”

He said it was “imperative” that Iran “remove any and all reasonable concerns” about its nuclear program.

Colin Kahl, a former Defense Department official in the Obama administration, told Arms Control Today in a Sept. 26 e-mail that Rouhani “signaled his willingness to reach some accommodation” and claims to have “sufficient leeway” from Khamenei to reach an agreement on the nuclear issue.

Sanctions Relief Sought

Rouhani told the United Nations that any deal must respect Iran’s right to enrich uranium and provide relief from the “unjust sanctions.”

Iran is subject to UN Security Council sanctions for failing to suspend its sensitive nuclear activities and provide answers to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding activities that could be applicable to developing nuclear weapons. The European Union and the United States and other countries have imposed their own sanctions on Iran over its nuclear activities.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed further sanctions against Iran in July that would result in a de facto oil embargo within a year if signed into law. The Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee is considering sanctions legislation of its own. That bill had not been publicly released at press time.

Kahl, now with the Center for a New American Security, said that if Iran is motivated to negotiate seriously and work toward a deal, “maintaining the current level of pressure is sufficient for now.”

“Piling on additional sanctions now, prior to testing Rouhani’s will to strike a deal” and his ability to sell it in Iran, could be “highly counterproductive,” Kahl said. New sanctions would “provide ammunition to Iranian hardliners,” allowing them to argue that “Tehran’s new, more conciliatory approach has made circumstances worse, not better,” he said.

Passing new sanctions if Iran “refuses to engage seriously and move toward meaningful concessions” could be a useful tool for diplomacy, Kahl said.

‘Very Constructive’ IAEA Talks

Iran resumed negotiations Sept. 27 with the IAEA over an approach for the agency’s investigations into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear activities. (See ACT, July/August 2013.) The IAEA negotiations have had little visible progress over the past two years.

Herman Nackaerts, deputy director-general of the IAEA, and Reza Najafi, Iran’s new ambassador to the IAEA, struck a positive tone in comments to reporters.

Speaking before the meeting, Najafi said that the parties would “exchange views” on how to “continue cooperation to resolve these issues.”

Nackaerts said after the meeting that the sides agreed to meet again on Oct. 28.