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Iran, P5+1 Hold ‘Substantive’ Talks
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Kelsey Davenport

Negotiations over Iran’s controversial nuclear program were “substantive and forward looking,” according to a joint statement released by officials representing Tehran and six world powers after talks Oct. 15-16 in Geneva.

Wendy Sherman, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs and the leader of the U.S. delegation, said in an Oct. 16 interview with CNN that the parties held a “detailed, substantive discussion with a candor” she had not heard during the past two years of negotiations with Iran.

The new negotiating team appointed by recently elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met for the first time with representatives from China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, known collectively as the P5+1, to resume talks on reaching an agreement on Iran’s controversial nuclear program. The parties had agreed to resume negotiations after they met in New York on Sept. 26 and Rouhani spoke on the phone with U.S. President Barack Obama on Sept. 27. (See ACT, October 2013.)

After Rouhani took office in August, he called for more-serious talks with the P5+1 to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. Talks between Iran and the P5+1 broke down in April. (See ACT, May 2013.) Tehran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the international community is concerned that Iran may choose to build nuclear weapons.

At an Oct. 16 press conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who led his country’s delegation and presented the Iranian proposal on the first day of talks, said he believed that the P5+1 “exhibited the necessary political will” to move forward on the negotiations. Now the parties have “to get to the details,” he said.

Zarif and Catherine Ashton, the leader of the P5+1 negotiating team, issued a joint statement at the end of the Geneva talks on behalf of the parties, stating that Iran had presented the outline of a plan “as a proposed basis for negotiation” that is being “carefully considered” by the P5+1 as “an important contribution.”

The Oct. 16 statement also said that the delegations held “in-depth bilateral and joint consultations” on elements of the plan and agreed to meet again Nov. 7-8 in Geneva. In the interim, experts from each side are to meet to “address differences and to develop practical steps.” The technical-level talks were held Oct. 30-31 in Vienna.

Sherman said that the discussions were direct and specific but that “many more details” remain to be resolved and there are “areas of great difference.” During the Geneva meeting, Sherman met with her Iranian counterpart in a bilateral meeting, the first such meeting to take place during nuclear negotiations since 2009.

In a separate press conference Oct. 16, Ashton said that the parties agreed not to release details of the Iranian proposal before the next round of negotiations. But the proposal is reported to include a discussion of a comprehensive agreement and an interim confidence-building measure to be implemented in the next three to six months. Sherman touched on this in her Oct. 16 CNN interview, saying that the two days of talks were “an important predicate” to reaching agreement on a confidence-building step and a final deal.

No steps were taken to relieve sanctions, Sherman said, adding that there is “a lot of work to do” before those steps can be taken. Sanctions experts accompanied the U.S. negotiating team to Geneva because Tehran needs to understand “what it takes to implement sanctions relief,” she said.

Challenges Ahead

Former government officials and other experts said it will be a challenge to negotiate the scope of an interim step to build confidence as both sides work out the conditions of a final deal.

The United States will likely look for Iran to suspend enrichment activities that bring the level of the uranium-235 isotope to 20 percent. Iran also enriches uranium to 3.5 percent. Uranium enriched to 20 percent can be more easily enriched to weapons-grade levels. Suspending 20 percent enrichment was part of the P5+1 proposal at the talks held in February and April in Almaty, Kazakhstan. (See ACT, March and May 2013.)

Iran’s most pressing concerns are sanctions relief and a recognition of its right to enrich uranium, according to Iranian officials.

The Iranian team did not go to Geneva “to seal a deal or take an interim step,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said during an Oct. 18 conference call with reporters.

Vaez, who was in Geneva during the negotiations, said that progress must first be made on a common understanding of the end state of Iran’s nuclear program.

Speaking during the Oct. 18 call, Robert Einhorn, a former State Department special adviser on nonproliferation and arms control, said that although the recent Geneva sessions were “purposeful” and the Iranians are serious about reaching a deal for the first time, it is “not clear if real progress has been made” during the talks.

Einhorn, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that “fleshing out” a framework for the interim steps will be a “real challenge.”

Vaez said that the “biggest challenges” will be negotiating the details on the limits of the enrichment activities that Tehran will be permitted and the verification measures to be put in place to monitor Iran’s nuclear program.

Future Sanctions Unclear

Reactions on Capitol Hill to the Geneva talks were mixed, with some members calling for further sanctions against Iran while negotiations are ongoing.

In a joint statement released Oct. 18, Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said that the United States “should not suspend” moving forward on new sanctions or release Iranian assets that have been tied up in other countries by existing restrictions until Tehran “suspends its nuclear enrichment activities.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that he would be open to “freezing further legislative action” on new sanctions if Iran quickly takes “concrete and fully verifiable steps,” including suspending all enrichment activities and allowing for comprehensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, said in an Oct. 15 statement that the United States “must continue to increase the sanctions against Iran” until Tehran has taken “clear and verifiable steps to halt and dismantle its nuclear program.”

Prior to the Geneva negotiations, in Oct. 3 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sherman said that if Iran did not come to Geneva with a “substantive plan that is real and verifiable,” the administration would support “looking at what pressure needs to be added.”

After the Geneva talks, however, in an Oct. 25 interview with Voice of America, Sherman said that it is time for a “pause” in passing new sanctions so that the negotiations can “gain traction.”

The House of Representatives passed additional sanctions legislation, H.R. 850, in July. If enacted, this law would result in a de facto oil embargo on Iran.

A Senate staffer said on Oct. 24 that similar legislation is being considered in the Senate Banking Committee, but did not provide details