Assessing the talks with Iran: a step towards pragmatism

There has been consensus amongst the negotiators that the discussions had been positively led by Iran in a very different manner than previous talks. The key message from these rounds of talks is that the Iranian team provided details for their proposal rather than a vague or impractical framework.

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, left Geneva with a bad back, a friendly smile and a wave to mark the end of the first round of nuclear talks with the E3+3 under President Rouhani’s government. Zarif, and indeed all nuclear negotiators left us wondering what cards had been dealt by the Islamic Republic of Iran over the two day negotiations last week. What has become clear from the assessment of these talks, is that the words of “divide”, “serious gaps” and “mistrust” used to describe previous failed negotiations with Iran have given way to “conciliation”, “cautious optimism” and “rebuilding trust”. That in itself is a victory, albeit a small one, for those applauding diplomatic engagement with Iran.

In a press conference, Zarif stated that the E3+3 (comprised of the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the US) were likely to require time ‘to digest and respond’ to the Iranian proposals. This is so because after decades of mistrust, both sides have grave concerns about how the nuclear question should be resolved. Iran’s capability to sustain itself through nuclear energy is rooted in a deep sense of scientific pride and political sovereignty. On the other hand, the well-recorded actions of Iran’s previous government has left international negotiators cautious of rapprochement with Iran and this has created a level of prejudice against how much Zarif’s team can really deliver.

Generally, there has been consensus amongst the negotiators that the discussions had been positively led by Iran in a very different manner than previous talks. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and Zarif noted that the talks were “substantive and forward looking“. The White House said that Iran displayed a “level of seriousness and substance that we have not seen before”.

The key message from these rounds of talks is that the Iranian team provided details for their proposal rather than a vague or impractical framework. In addition, a repeated observation has been in relation to the increased level of candid conversation with Iranian negotiators, who unlike previous rounds were all fluent in and willing to conduct themselves in English. The detailed disclosures and frank attitude to the negotiations enabled ideas to flow at pace during the talks and seem in themselves to have been confidence building measures on the part of Iran.

Although the deliberations in Geneva have been kept highly confidential, below are some of the concerns which are likely to have been addressed during Zarif’s power point presentation and the discussions that could follow with the E3+3:

1. Lowering Enrichment Levels

Arguably the most important concern for the E3+3 is to lower Iran’s uranium enrichment levels from its current capability of 20% to 3.5-5% everywhere inside the country. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Abbas Araqchi stated that Iran may consider lowering its enrichment levels. Iran is likely to agree to this measure in return for robust assurances that burdensome sanctions will be lifted or, at a minimum, routinely eased over time.

2. Sanctions Relief

Iran’s key demand during the Geneva talks will be sanctions relief. Since 2006, the UN Security Council has passed a series of sanctions on individuals and entities thought to be involved in the Iranian nuclear programme. Separately to these sanctions, the EU and the US have unilaterally introduced extraterritorial sanctions on Iran’s banking and energy sector. In an ideal scenario, Iran wants rapid relief on both the UN and the unilateral sanctions. In reality however, the Geneva talks are likely at best to only address UN sanctions.

The complex nature of US sanctions, coupled with the political divides before US Congress regarding the future of its relations with Iran, are likely to present a hurdle for the Geneva talks. Iran is live to this issue and has proactively engaged in bilateral talks with US negotiator, Wendy Sherman as to potential US sanctions relief. It is debatable whether the fate of the unilateral sanctions instigated by the EU will be resolved during the Geneva talks or whether, as with the US sanctions, discussed through bilateral talks. EU’s decision-making procedure enables it to maneuver its unilateral sanctions with much more ease than its US counterpart. During the Geneva talks, Iran may therefore press harder for relief from both UN and EU sanctions.

3. Spot Checks

The E3+3 have previously demanded that Iran allow regular, unannounced visits to its nuclear sites by international monitors. During the nuclear negotiations in 2003 Iran agreed to voluntarily endorse the Additional Protocol allowing for regular spot checks by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). With the failure of those negotiations, Iran did not implement the measures under the Additional Protocol. Although Zarif has stated that the Additional Protocol would not, as things stand, be reintroduced into the talks, Araqchi has commented that Iran would consider consenting to spot checks by the IAEA. 

4. Fordow Facility

The E3+3 are likely to request, as they did during the Almaty negotiations, that Iran suspends operations at Fordow production site (a nuclear facility disclosed in 2009). It is alleged that the higher-level enrichment work is carried out at Fordow. Iran may consider providing concrete concessions to ease concerns regarding the level of enrichment activities carried out at this facility in combination with spot checks.

5. Arak Heavy Water Reactor

Iran has maintained that the reactor facility at Arak is for civilian production of isotopes required for medical purposes. The E3+3 is particularly concerned about this reactor’s spent fuel which will contain plutonium that could be used for nuclear weapons. From a proliferation perspective, Iran has maintained that it will not engage in “reprocessing” (i.e. separating the plutonium for spent fuel which can be used in nuclear weapons). A deal could be initiated to ease concerns over the Arak reactor through complete disclosure of the reactor’s design information and spot checks by international monitors over a certain period of time to regulate the site’s activities.

6. Stockpile Limitations

Western powers have feared that Iran’s ability to enrich uranium at 20% would enable it to produce nuclear weapons materials (which requires around 90% enrichment) at a fast rate. Iran maintains that it needs this level of enriched uranium for use at the Tehran medical research reactor. During the Almaty talks last February, the E3+3 proposed that Iran could retain some of its 20% uranium for medical use but that the remainder should be shipped abroad. Prior to the Geneva talks, Araqchi stated that Iran would “not allow even a gram of uranium to go out of the country’” and that this presented a clear red line for the Iranian negotiators. Instead of the insistence on such limitation, the E3+3 may consider allowing Iran to keep all of its existing stockpile of 20% enriched uranium within her borders in return for other compromises, such as halting future enrichment at these levels.

… Enough Speculation….

Having stated the above, the hesitation to reveal details of the Iranian proposal is likely to be a positive sign for diplomacy. This privacy will enable negotiators to focus their efforts on finding reasonable solutions rather than constantly answering to the media and opponents of the reconciliation effort in their respective countries. Zarif has stressed on a number of occasions that there are factions within both sides of the negotiations that clearly oppose advancing the diplomatic olive branch. This opposition has clearly been seen in the blunt statements from US legislators with respect to blocking any sanctions relief on Iran and frantic speeches from the Israeli Prime Minister impairing US diplomatic efforts with Iran. President Rouhani’s government is eager to show concrete results from the Geneva Conference to persuade its domestic opponents that there has been a significant shift towards ending the years of isolation that has tarnished Iran’s role in the international arena.

Over the last decade, the EU, which makes up half the team of negotiators in these nuclear talks, has played a key role in encouraging the discourse between the US and Iran. The EU should continue its efforts towards shaping a diplomatic solution and seriously consider concrete measures which it is able to offer above and beyond the non-EU negotiators. This is particularly the case with easing the EU’s unilateral banking sanctions and providing Iran with access to the European market.

Although Iran has indicated a sense of urgency in ending the “unnecessary crisis” over its nuclear programme, it has also openly stated that the initial talks at Geneva would lead to a “roadmap” for future solutions rather than a quick fix. The next round of Geneva talks scheduled for early November are likely to involve further details and timelines for Iran’s three phase plan to end the deadlock over its nuclear programme. With enhanced disclosures behind closed doors, perhaps we will see a reevaluation by Iran of its deep sense of pride over the nuclear programme and find that the prejudice towards trusting Iran begins to melt into pragmatism from both sides.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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