Talks raise hopes of Iran nuclear deal

This month’s round of talks between six key world powers and Iran has been fruitful and could lead to the resolution of wide differences over its nuclear programme which Western governments believe could produce weapons but Tehran insists is for power generation.

Following this round, the first since Hassan Rouhani became Iran’s president, the US, adopted an upbeat attitude, saying that at the end of the process “the world could possibly have an agreement.” All the parties involved agreed the talks had been ‘substantive’ and ‘forward looking’ and involved discussion of all the main issues.

The six powers - the US, UK, China, Russia, France and Germany - also said Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, who made an hour-long PowerPoint presentation about Iran’s programme, had made an important contribution to deliberations.

The same parties are due to return to Geneva on November 7 for more detailed discussions.  In the meantime, experts in the nuclear and sanctions fields will meet to develop practical steps to be addressed by the November meeting. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the talks were “the most detailed we have ever hand by a long way.”

James Blitz, writing for The Financial Times from Geneva, observed, “The very short time lag between meeting (could be) an indication that serious negotiations are under way.”
According to the Zarif plan, the sides will agree to phased restrictions on the programme in exchange for a staged lifting of sanctions, particularly on the oil and banking sectors. A deal would allow Iran to retain the right to enrich a specific amount of uranium to a certain degree to provide fuel for nuclear power plants and for medical isotopes while signing onto the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty which mandates intrusive spot inspections on Iranian nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Not made public

Details of the discussions have not been made public because participants both in the US and Iran do not want to risk opposition at home or on the international scene before there are concrete achievements.

Iran actually began implementing the Additional Protocol in 2003, after shutting down its weapons programme at the instigation of the then nuclear negotiator, Rouhani.  While Britain, France and Germany had pledged to put forward a deal permitting Iran to have a nuclear programme, they did not follow through due to objections from the Bush administration.

Like his predecessors, President Barack Obama could be compelled to renege on a deal due to strong opposition to the easing of sanctions in Congress where the US pro-Israel lobby holds sway. Obama could halt sanctions imposed by presidential action and can temporarily suspend sanctions imposed by Congressional legislation but he has, so far, refused to challenge Congress in this way, even when it shut down the government and refused to raise the US debt ceiling, risking global economic meltdown.

If the Geneva meetings do not progress quickly, Congress has threatened to impose a fresh sanctions on Iran, including a comprehensive trade embargo and a total cut of Iranian oil exports, which account for 80 per cent of government revenues.

Congress, where there is bipartisan support for the Israeli position on Iran, could blackmail Obama by threatening to reject elements of his domestic agenda if he presses for the reduction of sanctions, which is the prerogative of Congress.

Congress can also exert leverage on European governments and press India, China and other customers for Iran’s oil to halt purchases of Iranian oil. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said that the administration requires progress "not just to keep the process alive, but to make sure that congress doesn't kill [negotiations] by adding sanctions" at a strategic moment.

Dismissing optimism expressed over the first round of talks, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime mover of concerns in the US Congress, urged Western leaders not to lift sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy.  Once again, he threatened pre-emptive military action against Iran with the aim of destroying its nuclear facilities. Netanyahu is due to discuss the Geneva talks with US secretary of state John Kerry next week in Rome.

Another key US ally which is seriously worried about progress in talks on Iran's nuclear programme and the lifting of sanctions is Sunni Saudi Arabia, which regards Shia Iran as its main competitor for influence in West Asia and the Muslim world. Riyadh is concerned that resolution of the nuclear dispute and the lifting of sanctions would herald an era of rapprochement between Tehran and the US and Europe.

However, Israel and Saudi Arabia should not be allowed to undermine the effort of leading world powers to normalise relations with Iran.

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