As high-level negotiations resume in Geneva Thursday over the question of Iran's nuclear and uranium enrichment programs, hopes for progress are reported to be optimistic so long as possible saboteurs to the talks—including the Israeli government and U.S. Congress—are adequately sidelined.
With Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meeting with top diplomats from the P5+1 countries—which includes the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China—the outline of a possible agreement, even a smaller short-term deal that acts as a precursor to a long-term one, seemed closer than ever.
"I believe it is possible to reach an agreement during this meeting," said Zarif in an interview with France 24, "but I can only talk for our side, I cannot talk for the other side."
"I believe we've come very far in the last three rounds, so we [only] need to make a few more steps," he continued. "We are prepared to make them in Geneva. But if we can't take them in Geneva, we'll take them in the next round."
Though none of those involved directly in the talks would speak openly about the contours of a deal, the basic outline of what could be expected was being reportedly widely. According to Reuters:
A senior aide to a U.S. senator briefed by the White House and State Department said Washington would offer to work with Iran in a six-month confidence-building period. During that time, Washington would offer Tehran relaxed restrictions on Iran's funds held in overseas accounts. It could also ease sanctions on trade in gold and petrochemicals.
In exchange, Iran would stop enriching uranium to 20 percent and convert its existing stockpile of 20 percent uranium to an oxide form suitable for processing into reactor fuel and take other measures to slow the program.
The fears of sabotage, however, are most strongly felt because of continued threats by U.S. members of congress to legislate new rounds of sanctions against Iran even as the recent progress made since the election of Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani has given new hope to a peaceful settlement.
As Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, caution in an op-ed on Wednesday, however, any move by Congress to slap Iran with deeper sanctions at this crucial moment would be a disaster.
Calling the outline of the deal on the table a "good" one, Parsi wrote:
Based on conversations with diplomats on both sides of the table, I believe it is a durable deal that enhances America's security and nonproliferation goals while making Iran much less hostile and U.S. allies in the region much more safe.
And make no mistake about the flip side: The alternative to this deal—the continuation of the sanctions path —will see Iran continue to inch toward a nuclear weapons option while the U.S. and Iran gravitate toward a disastrous military confrontation.
It's either a deal or another war in the Middle East. Those are the stakes.
And foreign policy analyst Sina Toossi, writing at Foreign Policy In Focus on Thursday, blasted the failure of the sanctions regime while also terming the prospective agreement a "win-win" deal. According to Toossi:
What the Iranians want is U.S. recognition, both for their government and for their legitimate interests in the Middle East—this is what their 2003 proposal was about, and it’s what their offer for talks now is about. Now that the United States is negotiating a potentially similar offer from Iran—even as Iran’s position in the region is far stronger, and its nuclear program far more developed than it was 10 years ago—Washington simply cannot afford to let this opportunity fall through.
It is critical for policymakers to understand at this point that sanctions—as a tool to coerce other nations to change their policies against their interests—are rarely effective. While sanctions have badly damaged Iran’s economy, the Iranians have adapted accordingly, a process that has been painful but not fatal. Most importantly, sanctions have failed to change Iran’s nuclear calculus, with the Iranians essentially offering the same thing now that they have been offering for the past decade.
Iran’s leaders are prepared to limit Iran’s domestic enrichment to the 5-percent level, sign onto the additional protocol of the NPT, subject their nuclear facilities to more rigorous inspection, and convert their existing stockpiles of 20-percent enriched uranium (which can more easily be converted to weapons-grade 90-percent enriched uranium) to fuel rods. In exchange, the Iranians want what they have always wanted: a recognition of their right to enrich uranium on their own soil (at the 5-percent level), the removal of sanctions, and a clear endgame to the dispute that puts to rest their worry that the United States is really after regime change.
If some sort of agreement with Iran over its nuclear program reached, the stage will be set to engage Iran on other regional issues. A mutually beneficial rapprochement between Iran and the United States could very well serve as the best security guarantee for American interests in the region for years to come.