Nuclear Calm

Western and Iranian Diplomats Upbeat after Swiss Talks on Security Issues

GENEVA—The last time the Iranians sat down with world powers to discuss their nuclear program was only six months ago, in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Today, however, as the sides resumed negotiations in Switzerland, Almaty seemed farther in the rear view than its 7,000-mile distance from the shores of Lake Geneva. The biggest change, clearly, has been the new Iranian team: Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was elected, took office, and leaned heavily into his now-famous "charm offensive." With backing for Rouhani from Iran's clerical leadership, the Iranians claimed to now be serious about reassuring the international community—led by the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members and Germany, the so-called P5+1—about the professed peaceful nature of their nuclear program, and hoped to get the touch sanctions hitting their economy eased. And world powers said they were ready to reciprocate, if Iran gave significant assurances.

Scant details emerged from the talks, but progress seemed apparent. The E.U.'s top foreign policy official's spokesperson Michael Mann told reporters as the morning plenary ended that the Iranians offered a new proposal in the form of an hour-long PowerPoint presentation. "It was very useful," Mann said.

The Iranians reacted in kind: the "reaction was good," said the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, just before briefing Iranian reporters in more detail. "Even if there is no significant breakthrough in these talks, we've had progress," said the International Crisis Group Iran analyst Ali Vaez, citing discussion of an "endgame," proliferating bilateral talks, and an Iranian willingness to talk details. "But we have to wait and see until tomorrow."

As evening set in, Western and Iranian diplomats grew more effusive. A source close to the Iranian delegation told me afternoon talks were "very constructive and positive." Western delegations echoed the sentiment: the E.U.'s Mann and the U.S. State Department released nearly identical remarks about the afternoon plenary.

"For the first time," Mann said in a brief statement, "very detailed technical discussions continued this afternoon." A senior State Department official said: "For the first time, we had very detailed technical discussions, which carried on this afternoon." Both parties said talks would continue tomorrow. The brief, vague statements on "technical" talks that reached a henceforth unseen level of engagement suggested deliberations were ongoing.

The double statements coincided with news of several bilateral meetings between the Iranians and P5+1 countries. Mann announced a dinner between the E.U.'s top foreign policy official, Lady Catherine Ashton, and the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. An Iranian official then confirmed to journalist Laura Rozen a report in the country's semi-official press that the Iranian deputy Araghchi meeting with the top U.S. representative at talks, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman. "The discussion was useful, and we look forward to continuing our discussions in tomorrow's meetings with the full P5+1 and Iran," a senior State Department official later added.

Still, further gains are bound to come slowly. “I hope that we can agree on a road map for arriving at an agreement by Wednesday,” Zarif wrote on FaceBook on Sunday. “But even if the other side shows goodwill, agreeing on details and implementation would require another cabinet level meeting.” U.S. officials then lowered expectations themselves: “No one should expect a breakthrough overnight,” a senior administration official told reporters on the eve of talks.

That the top U.S. official present and the top Iranian present didn't meet came as no surprise: the Iranians were reportedly miffed that their top diplomat's presence at the meet wasn't matched by the U.S. Sherman, as Undersecretary for Political Affairs, is the department's third-ranked official. Secretary of State John Kerry was in meetings in London over the weekend, but flew home on Monday. But Kerry also delivered a message that diplomacy was making its way forward, and to a most unusual audience.

"Right now, the window for diplomacy is cracking open," Kerry told an an American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference by video over the weekend. "But I want you to know that our eyes are open, too," he added. Kerry was alluding to American pledges that Iran's softening rhetoric must be met by action on its nuclear program, in an apparent attempt to mollify the hawkish pro-Israel group. AIPAC has made aggressive legislating against Iran the centerpiece of its agenda.

Indeed, Israel is waging a concerted counter-charm offensive against easing sanctions on Iran—the Islamic Republic's chief goal in talks. Though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a hawkish address today hinting at an Israeli willingness to attack Iran, the Jewish state, too, softened its line ahead of talks, nodding to Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program. Netanyahu maintained his position that Iran must not be allowed to enrich nuclear material domestically. That's the line also toed by hawks in Congress, who wait in the wings of talks to enact ever-harsher measures against Iran. But events may have eclipsed the so-called "zero enrichment" policy. If progress on nuclear talks between Iran and the U.S. continues, that may be the least of the dynamics in the Middle East to be upended.