GENEVA -- After the most “intense, detailed, straightforward and candid” talks with Iran in many years, U.S. officials voiced cautious hope Wednesday that a peaceful resolution will be found to the long-running dispute over its nuclear program.
U.S. negotiators declined to use the word “breakthrough” to describe the two days of meetings here in Geneva between top officials of the newly elected Iranian government and representatives of the United States and its negotiating partners, Russia, China and three European powers.
But Western officials appeared buoyed by the meetings, and the six world powers announced in a joint statement with Iran that talks will resume here Nov. 7. In the intervening weeks, technical experts will meet to explore the details of a new proposal from Iran, which is seeking relief from tough economic sanctions in exchange for a verifiable commitment not to build a nuclear weapon.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s chief diplomat, said the talks here were “very intensive” and “very important.” She said both sides had had the opportunity to talk in “much greater detail than ever before, to answer each other’s questions.”
The head of the U.S. delegation, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, didn’t comment for the record, but a senior official summed up the U.S. reaction in unusually hopeful terms. “We are beginning that kind of negotiation to get to a place where, in fact, one can imagine that you could possibly have an agreement,” the official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity under the rules of the briefing.
In Washington, the White House said the Iranian proposal contained a “level of seriousness and substance that we have not seen before.”
Iranian officials delivered a slightly more ambiguous message. Javad Zarif, the country’s foreign minister, speaking in English, said the talks showed that “both sides are serious about finding” a peaceful resolution, and that he hoped Western officials would take back to their governments the message that Iran “is interested in resolving this issue.”
Switching to Farsi, he said Iran “was insisting on our rights in the context of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,” wording that’s usually taken to mean that Iran would insist on continuing to enrich uranium.
Iran’s unrestricted enrichment of uranium has helped fuel the impasse with the United States and the other world powers. Iran has a stockpile of 6.7 metric tons – 7.3 short tons – of so-called low-enriched 5 percent uranium and some 185 kilograms – 407 pounds – of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a level from which it would be far easier to produce weapons-grade uranium, which is 95 percent enriched.
Asked to explain Zarif’s remarks, his deputy, Abbas Araqchi, said, “Iraq has the right to continue nuclear enrichment, but it does not mean we cannot find a solution for any concern which is attached to those rights.”
Araqchi went on to say the talks might produce a rapid result. “If there is enough good will on both sides,” he said, “we can conclude negotiations in a matter of three to six months.”
Briefing reporters, the senior U.S. official had a more tempered view. “We are far apart,” the official said. “There is no question, as much detail as we got (from Iran), we need a considerable amount more detail.”
The official added, “The devil is truly in the details” on this issue. “How will (any agreement) be verified? What’s the scope? What’s the nature of it? Who will get it done? There’s just tons and tons of detail for every step you want to take.”
Ashton said this was the first time that Iran and the six major powers had issued a joint statement, but it was in fact the second occasion in 18 months, after talks in Istanbul in April 2012. That meeting led to a round of talks in Baghdad, Moscow and Almaty, Kazakhstan, that then sputtered to a halt, leading to the current impasse.
What’s different this time is that Iran has a new government led by reformist cleric Hassan Rouhani, and the delegation arrived after publicly declaring that solutions could be found to all aspects of the dispute.
The atmosphere seemed more relaxed than during the Istanbul talks, where Iranian diplomats represented the hard-line regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Zarif, who attended college and graduate school in the United States and then served as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, conducted the entire two-day discussion in English. “The pace of the discussions is much better, and it creates the ability to have a back and forth one must have if you want to have a negotiation,” the senior U.S. official said.
Zarif, who arrived in Geneva complaining of acute back pain, was seated in a wheelchair and had to be helped to the podium to speak. His affliction gave Sherman and other officials the opportunity to advise him on how to treat it.
“There isn’t one among us who doesn’t have a back problem” as a result of extensive travel in cramped airline seats, the senior U.S. official said. “Everybody had a back story for him, books he should read, things he might try.”
Zarif’s solution Wednesday was treatment by an acupuncturist. But there was no sign that it was working.