One Step Forward

The talks held between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) and Iran in Geneva on October 15 and16 were a positive step toward breaking the deadlocked nuclear negotiations. The U.S. State Department was cautious, noting that the P5+1 and Iran are still “far apart on many things,” but the path forward is significantly more promising than it has been in a long time.

One of the most positive outcomes was a Joint Statement between the European Union (EU) High Representative Catherine Ashton and the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. That statement is an affirmation from both negotiating parties that the meetings were “forward looking,” and the Iranian proposal is an “important contribution.” What changed? Why is there a more positive negotiating atmosphere than before?

The most obvious reason is the new president of Iran. The P5+1 is no longer attempting to negotiate with an Iran led by President Ahmadinejad, a radical ideologue who publicly rejected the historiography of the Holocaust. Instead, the West is negotiating with an Iran that elected Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, as President and that seeks an end to its international isolation and sanctions that have crushed its economy. He delivered a speech of moderation at the United Nations General Assembly in September—markedly different from the rhetoric his predecessor infamously and consistently broadcasted. 

Iran’s stark economic reality is difficult to ignore. A combination of four United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) from 2006 to 2010, particularly UNSCR 1929, and a series of unilateral sanctions from both the United States and the EU have been strangling the Iranian economy, particularly the financial sector and oil industries. Of note was the EU sanctions in 2012 that “banned imports of Iranian crude oil and petroleum products, froze the assets of the Iranian central bank, and took additional action against Iran’s energy, financial, and transport sectors.” Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service reported in July this year that “the loss of revenues from oil, coupled with the cut-off of Iran from the international banking system, has caused a sharp drop in the value of Iran’s currency, the rial, and caused inflation to increase to well over 50 percent.” Iran clearly has an economic incentive to come back to the negotiating table. This was further affirmed by Abbas Aragchi’s statement to Iranian state media. According to the Wall Street Journal, he told them “his government hoped to see the complete lifting of sanctions within six months.”

 If media reporting of Iran’s proposal during the Geneva talks is accurate, then it further emphasizes that there is serious Iranian political will to resolve issues over Iran’s nuclear program. Barbara Slavin of Al-Monitor reports that Iran proposed to:

  1. freeze production of 20 percent enriched uranium, one of the main nuclear activities that have concerned the P5+1;
  2. convert existing stockpile to fuel rods;
  3. allow full transparency on its Arak heavy water reactor, underground enrichment plant at Fordow; and
  4. ratify the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. 

Wall Street Journal reporting indicates that Iran may have also proposed limiting the number and sophistication of centrifuges in Natanz. While from the U.S. perspective, Iran’s proposal is still far from ideal, it is a step closer to the P5+1 proposal that was discussed in Almaty earlier in the year. This coupled with the new level of candor that the Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman heard from the Iranian officials are all positive signs.

Two days of positive negotiations cannot undo the decades of mistrust between the United States and Iran. The next meetings on November 7 and 8 are critical in ensuring this positive trajectory. Congressional efforts to impose additional sanctions could torpedo the talks, as could demands from Iranian hard-liners that the government offer no concessions. The United States must take advantage of the new political and economic landscape in which Iran is negotiating and give diplomacy a real chance.

Regina Park is a graduate student at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.