Talks between Iran and the G6 countries — the United States, Russia, China, Germany, France, and Britain — in Geneva on October 15 and 16 concluded, as expected, with no clear breakthrough but with another Geneva meeting scheduled for November 7 and 8. The delegations, respectively led by European Union Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, issued a joint statement that an Iranian plan for negotiation was followed by “in-depth” bilateral and joint consultations. The reasons for this cautious optimism are largely but not solely instrumental. Western sanctions have hit Iran hard, and many other countries have imposed their own under threat of U.S. sanctions against themselves. On the western side, President Barack Obama needs a foreign policy success, for which Iran offers better prospects than do Israel-Palestine, Syria, or Egypt. Both Iran and the G6 are offering various inducements, with Iran reportedly willing to accept stronger inspection powers for the International Atomic Energy Authority, to suspend production of 20 per cent enriched uranium, and to negotiate on the number of centrifuges it uses for enrichment. The U.S. can offer to unblock tens of billions of dollars Iran has in accounts around the world; in September the European Court of Justice ruled several EU-based freezes illegal, and the West could lift sanctions on medical supplies, aircraft spare parts, and travel by Iranian citizens.

The West, however, faces greater obstacles than Iran does. President Hassan Rouhani is facing some domestic opposition to better relations with the West but seems to have the support of the country’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while the Obama administration has to surmount U.S. Congress hostility to Iran; Zionist influence on the legislature is so strong that Mr. Obama could lose control over this area of foreign policy. Worse still, many Gulf states and Israel will do all they can to wreck a Tehran-G6 deal. Wikileaked cables quote Arab leaders as saying Iran’s nuclear programme must be stopped by “all means available” and describing Iranian leaders in highly abusive terms. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, calls Mr. Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and demands “paralysing” sanctions, which he thinks will fail without a serious U.S. threat of attack. According to an Israeli official, Gulf states even send Washington messages through Israel. Mr. Obama, however, has at least partly moved from armed intervention towards diplomacy, and Iran has openly rejected nuclear weapons since 2005. Whatever the pressures on them, neither the U.S. nor Iran must abandon these principles.

More In: Editorial | Opinion