Iran Nuke Talks: Succeeding Beyond (Low) Expectations

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Dominic Favre / AP

Delegates from Iran, in the left-hand row, meet in Geneva with delegates of the U.S. and five other countries to demand a freeze of Iran's nuclear activities

President Barack Obama's strategy of engaging Iran finally got under way in earnest on Thursday with a positive response from Tehran to at least some of the concerns about its nuclear program. At a meeting in Geneva with officials from Western powers, Russia and China, Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili agreed to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect a hitherto secret uranium-enrichment facility under construction near Qum. President Obama and his allies expressed grave concern last week about the site after revelations of its existence, and they made the demand for its inspection a key benchmark of Iran's willingness to cooperate in resolving questions about its nuclear intent. European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana announced that Iran had agreed to inspections at the site "in the next couple of weeks" and hailed the talks as "the start of what we hope will be an intensive process." Further talks are expected to be held later this month.

Obama later called the talks a "constructive beginning" but insisted that Iran follow up with "constructive action" to prove its stated commitment to confine itself to peaceful nuclear development. "We're not interested in talking for the sake of talking," he said. "Pledges of cooperation must be fulfilled."

The Obama Administration had sought talks with Iran since taking office in January but had been rebuffed until now. Under growing pressure from Capitol Hill and allies in Europe and Israel to show results for his engagement strategy, Obama had warned Iran that failure to discuss international concerns over its nuclear program would be met with an escalation of sanctions. U.S. and European diplomats had taken great care to lower expectations for the Geneva meeting — the metric of success, they stressed, would be the tone of the meeting and Tehran's willingness to engage on the issues of most concern to the West.

From the Administration's perspective, then, the meeting appears to have succeeded beyond (diminished) expectations, and Iran's representatives seem to have demonstrated sufficient flexibility to warrant further talks. "Iran has told us that it plans to cooperate fully and immediately with the International Atomic Energy Agency on the new enrichment facility near Qum," Solana said, "and will invite experts from the agency to visit soon — we expect in the next couple of weeks." He also disclosed that the delegates had agreed in principle that Iran would transport some of the low-enriched uranium it had produced to a third country for further enrichment so that the uranium could be used to fuel a research reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes.

If the talks were a win for Obama, the same could be said for Iran's President Ahmadinejad, who plainly intends to use the process to reinforce his legitimacy in the wake of Iran's June 12 election debacle. Indeed, Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki said on Thursday that the talks had gone so well that the next round ought to be a summit between the two Presidents — an option that would likely be politically unpalatable to the Administration in light of Iran's domestic political situation.

Solana hailed the level of participation by the U.S. at Geneva, which clearly represented a break from the narrow terms on which the Bush Administration had backed the European-led diplomacy. Whereas William Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, had been restricted from delivering much more than prepared remarks at the last meeting of this forum in 2008, this time he held what U.S. officials called a "significant conversation" directly with his Iranian counterpart, Jalili, on the sidelines — the highest level of direct conversation between the U.S. and Iran in decades. State Department spokesman Robert Wood described it as a "frank exchange" on the nuclear issue and other questions, including human rights, but stressed that its contents were confidential.

Iran appears to have demonstrated sufficient flexibility to allow for a new negotiating process to get under way, although that process could be circuitous and frustrating. Iran had consistently warned before the talks that it was not willing to negotiate over its nuclear "rights," that is, the development of the full nuclear fuel cycle for energy purposes. The U.S. and its European allies have sought to persuade Iran to renounce the right to enrich uranium, because that capacity could be converted to create weapons materiel. And Washington has demanded that Iran abide by U.N. Security Council resolutions ordering it to suspend enrichment until all transparency concerns raised by the IAEA are resolved. Although Iran continues to defy those resolutions and refuses to renounce its right to enrichment, it appears willing to negotiate over strengthening safeguards to prevent the use of its nuclear facilities for a weapons program.

The diplomatic process was never going to be simply a question of restating Western ultimatums and reiterating the incentives for Iran to accept them and the consequences of defiance. Tehran has its own ideas about how to resolve the standoff, and many critics have warned that it will try to string out any negotiating process to buy time and divide the international community without giving significant ground. Certainly, the diplomatic game that got under way in Geneva on Thursday is unlikely to produce quick or even necessarily satisfactory results — and it may force Western powers to accept more limited goals than persuading Iran to forgo enrichment altogether. But Tehran's agreement to inspections at Qum and other signs of cooperation are a positive start. And given the limited potential for sanctions to change Iran's behavior, it's not as if the Western powers have much of an alternative to pursuing diplomacy, with all its pitfalls.

U.S. officials went to Geneva to judge Iran's willingness to address international concerns about its nuclear program, having indicated that they're going to give the process until the end of the year before judging its effectiveness at resolving those concerns. Notes of caution and caveats will abound, but the takeaway from Thursday's meeting will be: So far, so good.