Geneva talks: a fresh opportunity for Iran & E3+3 (P5+1)

The latest installment of the negotiations between Iran and the E3+3 (P5+1: United States, United Kingdom, China, Russia, France, and Germany) will resume on Tuesday and Wednesday in Geneva. Negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program are now into their 10th year, and each year brings about more disappointment and more anxiety over concerns of nuclear proliferation.

The West has put Iran under enormous pressure with mounting sanctions to coerce the country to stop its uranium enrichment, but Iranian negotiators have always insisted that they want their right to enrich [under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] acknowledged before they will consider any other terms.

But things are different this year. These meetings tomorrow are the first round of nuclear talks with the E3+3 under Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, whose election campaign promised his country he would tackle sanctions and rebuild relations with the West. These are big and brave political promises for a new President to make, but maybe this indicates he truly intends to pull through. A string of positive public diplomacy, optimistic speeches, and historic meetings at the UN at the General Assembly in September imply that Iran is ready to rebuild relations and transform perceptions. With new negotiating teams on both sides of the table in Geneva tomorrow, the dynamics will be different and many are hopeful that new faces will lead to refreshing ideas and a positive outcome. But is this enough?

The Iranian nuclear negotiating team will be lead by Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who–along with President Rouhani–has been leading on a positive and skillful public diplomacy campaign through Facebook and Twitter in order to promote transparency. In September, Zarif blogged his way through UN meetings at the General Assembly on his Facebook account, summarizing the outcomes of his meetings with the likes of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, UK Foreign Minister William Hague, and US Secretary of State John Kerry. The 30 minute encounter between Zarif and Kerry was the highest level face to face bilateral meeting between the US and Iran since 1979. This was, however, just one day before an unprecedented phone call between Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani on the prospects of reaching a deal over the nuclear issue.

The American negotiating team is also different this time around; US Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman will head the team, with her her deputy Jim Timbie (senior nonproliferation adviser), Richard Nephew (State Department Iran sanctions adviser), Puneet Talwar (National Security Staff Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs), Adam Szubin (Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control), and Marie Harf (spokesperson from the State Department). At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting in early October, Sherman told Congress that it is up to Iran to put forth a plan of action. It is likely that Zarif and his team will do just that, but it probably will not be as detailed as Sherman and the other five negotiating partners will hope for. Chances are, Zarif will [re]emphasize Iran’s key end goals, which are relief from sanctions and the recognition of their right to enrich. In order to help meet Iran halfway, the P5+1 countries should come ready to discuss the terms reaching these goals and others. For example, a frank discussion about how sanctions would be lifted and who is responsible might be a way of meeting Iranian counterparts halfway. It may be that they will also need to discuss what the Iranians call the end-state – where these negotiations are headed for.

With such a poor track record, one cannot help but be skeptical about the realistic prospects for these negotiations between the seven nations, and any meetings that might follow. However, if there was any time to be optimistic, it should be now. Finding a peaceful diplomatic solution to this nuclear dilemma as soon as possible is in the interest of all parties: Iran wants relief from sanctions and the P5+1 was proliferation risks eliminated. All eyes will be on the negotiations and we all need to recognize the importance of this chance before it slips through our grasp, and ensure the negotiators seize these opportunities that we have in front of us to move forward on diplomacy and rebuild relations. There is a middle ground, but both sides are going to have to meet it, and not have unrealistic expectations of the other. If those sitting around the table go into the negotiations expecting them to fail at the fault of the other side, or expect the other side to do all the running and move first, then these talks are doomed from the beginning. As former US Ambassador John Limbert wrote in his book Negotiating with Iran, “Expect better and success becomes possible.”

This week’s discussions in Geneva will be followed next week by a meeting hosted by Ambassador Jaakko Laajava, Facilitator for the WMD-free Zone in the Middle East. Being hosted not far from Geneva, in the Swiss town of Glion, this meeting will be the first step towards making concrete plans for the “Helsinki Conference” to establish a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, which has already been delayed a year. The coordinated timing of this week’s E3+3(P5+1)-Iran talks and next week’s MEWMDFZ meeting, coincidental or not, will help frame the Iranian nuclear situation in a regional context and place even more emphasis on the importance of reaching a compromise.

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