Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sounds a bit glum as he expresses optimism about the talks on his country’s nuclear program, which resumed briefly in Vienna on Tuesday.
“I think we cannot negotiate unless we are optimistic,” Zarif said in a live Skype video conference with the University of Denver, where he earned both master’s and doctorate degrees in international studies in the 1980s. “But we need to be realistic. Unfortunately what we have seen in the last two months has not encouraged us. And I can understand the politics of constituency in the United States, but from an Iranian perspective … what has happened in the last two months has been less than encouraging.” He said there was “a great deal of concern in Iran whether the United States is serious about wanting to reach an agreement.”
Zarif evidently was alluding to efforts in the U.S. Congress to pass tough new sanctions on Iran despite the completion of an interim agreement providing Tehran with a measure of relief from sanctions as a reward for freezing its nuclear program for at least six months to provide room for negotiations toward a final agreement. Those talks were what began on Tuesday, in relatively brief sessions that officials reported were devoted to discussions of how to move forward.
But Zarif indicated the momentum generated by the festive Nov. 24 signing of the interim accord — after decades of icy relations between Tehran and Washington — had been dissipated as hard-liners in both countries objected to the pact, though he clearly preferred to dwell on the American backlash. Skeptics of the talks in the U.S. Senate came within a vote of the supermajority that would override the veto President Obama vowed to use against a bill that would impose harsh new sanctions on Iran if talks broke down.
“I cannot be frank and honest with you and say that things have developed in the right direction, because people have started looking at it strictly from the perspective of their domestic constituencies,” Zarif said. “I believe we have lost basically the last two months in order to start cracking that wall of mistrust between the two countries.” He added, rallying a bit, “But I’m not pessimistic. We can move forward.”
Zarif faces skepticism among Iranian hard-liners as well — including the cleric who holds ultimate power in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. In a speech delivered on Monday, Khamenei offered support for Zarif’s efforts, and pledged fealty to the interim accord, but, after noting the opposition in Congress, added his usual dour assessment of American goodwill, “What our Foreign Ministry and officials have started will continue, and Iran will not violate its commitments,” Khamenei said. “But this will not lead anywhere.”
Foreign Minister Zarif did not deny the drag on expectations came from both sides. “Iran, like the United States, is not a monolith,” he said.