Neither a breakdown, nor a breakthrough. The weekend talks in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear programme with six world powers – the US, Britain, Russia, France, China, and Germany – have ended without agreement but on a mutually optimistic note, and a commitment to resume at a lower level in 10 days. To get this far is a welcome measure of how the substance of Iran diplomacy has shifted, and continues to shift since President Hassan Rouhani was elected in June.
Yesterday US Secretary of State John Kerry said he hoped a deal would be signed within months while Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke of being “on the same wavelength”. A separate agreement yesterday to allow UN inspectors within three months to get “managed access” to a uranium mine and a heavy water plant at Arak was also being seen as a sign of Iranian good faith.
What appears to have prevented agreement, press reports suggest, was a refusal on principle by Iran to a deal unless it included a formal recognition of its “right” to enrich uranium, a necessary step in a civil nuclear programme, but also, at a higher level, in the production of plutonium for military use. Reports suggest that while such language was not acceptable to Washington, the US is willing to allow for enrichment to the low level of 3.5 per cent for civil use, while the French are less amenable and want the Arak plant, which will be capable of producing plutonium, closed .
The French position is closer to that of hawks in the US Congress who want no agreement to any enrichment and who are portraying the failure to agree as a sign of Iranian intransigence and an opportunity to ratchet up sanctions. In doing so they echo suspicions emanating from Jerusalem and Riyadh, who both resent any signs of an opening to what they see as a fundamentally untrustworthy Iran. Whether France is simply playing hardball in the talks, or has a different strategic objective is unclear. Iran’s tentative spring is, however, not an opportunity to be missed.