Signs of Optimism at Iran Nuclear Talks in Geneva

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Fabrice Coffrini / AP

E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton walks next to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif prior to the start of nuclear talks at the U.N. offices in Geneva on Oct. 15, 2013

On the last day of his September visit to New York City, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addressed the media at a press conference and spoke of the upcoming talks in Geneva on his country’s nuclear program. “We hope that these talks will yield in a short period of time tangible results,” Rouhani said at the time. He then got into a car bound for the airport and had a phone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama — the first direct contact between Iranian and American heads of state in over three decades.

The symbolism of Rouhani’s American sojourn and the message of his charm offensive were clear. Iran’s new leadership was ready for change, both at home and abroad. After two months of overtures, rapprochement with the U.S. was in sight.

But the proof lies in the talking. The meetings held this week in Geneva of the “P5+1” — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — and the Iranians present the first genuine opportunity for Tehran and the West to settle differences over Iran’s disputed nuclear program. And while substantive details of the discussions are scant, reports suggest there are reasons for optimism after nearly a decade of deepening tensions.

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Both E.U. and other Western officials hailed the seriousness of the talks. “For the first time, we had very detailed technical discussions,” said a State Department official to the New York Times. According to reports, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, an experienced diplomat and former Iranian ambassador to the U.N., gave an hour-long slide-show presentation titled Closing an Unnecessary Crisis — Opening New Horizons. E.U. spokesman Michael Mann told reporters on Tuesday that the Iranians have “come forward with something this morning, but we need to work harder on it to get down to the nitty-gritty.” Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi described the day’s proceedings as “positive and constructive.” He met with U.S. Under Secretary Wendy Sherman for a half-an-hour-long bilateral session, the sort of meeting that seemed impossible during the acrimonious tenure of previous Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Both sides hope to emerge from the Geneva talks with an agreed plan that would help settle international suspicions over Iran’s suspected quest for nuclear weapons and loosen the stifling regime of sanctions that’s hobbling Iran’s economy. The Iranians have insisted throughout that their nuclear program is peaceful. “We do not want a bomb. In our defense doctrine, there is no room for weapons of mass destruction,” Rouhani said in New York City in September. But they so far refuse to cease uranium enrichment in Iranian facilities at levels the West deems unacceptable. The success of the talks will hinge on what concessions can be coaxed from Tehran on this front.

Conservatives in both Iran and the U.S. are following proceedings with a skeptical eye. Hawks in Washington are convinced the softer Iranian approach under Rouhani is the ruse of a regime whose mullahs are bent on regional hegemony. Meanwhile, Iran’s newly elected President and his Cabinet have been embroiled in spats with hard-liners at home, who are equally wary of normalizing ties with the Great Satan. A disagreement with a conservative Iranian newspaper upset Zarif so much that he claimed it sent him to the hospital with muscle spasms. Still in pain, he reportedly moved around his hotel in Geneva in a wheelchair. But the atmosphere between the U.S. and Iran is healthier than it has been in years.

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