The talks in Geneva between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (the G6) between November 6 and 9 ended, unsurprisingly, without a decisive outcome, but that is not a major problem. The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, described the meeting as “intensive and constructive”; Iranian Foreign Minister and delegation leader Mohammad Javad Zarif concurred, calling the discussions “very good” and citing the fact that they went on late into the night of an unscheduled third day. The parties will meet again in Geneva, for talks between senior diplomats, on November 20. The key point for Iran is relief from western economic sanctions, and the G6’s concerns have to do with Iran’s work on a nuclear reactor at Arak, south-east of Tehran, which could potentially produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel, as well as the country’s existing stockpile of enriched uranium. Yet the inconclusive Geneva outcome stems mainly from disagreements among the G6. France rejected what seemed to be a draft agreement apparently devised by Iran and the U.S., saying it was a fait accompli; the draft would have meant Tehran’s delaying or temporarily ceasing work on its nuclear programme, in return for removal of some sanctions.
The wider context, however, shows how far the western G6 members have still to go. President Barack Obama can only offer to lift sanctions imposed by the White House and not by Congress, which has been unremittingly hostile towards Iran for decades. Secondly, the U.S. imposes sanctions on third countries which trade with Iran; even India, which is exempted from those, has cut imports of Iranian oil by 23 per cent, possibly under pressure from Washington. Thirdly, France’s claim that the draft deal did not do enough to restrict Iran’s nuclear programme is hollow. The Arak reactor will take at least another year even to complete, and Iran continues to deny any intention to produce nuclear weapons.Tehran appears ready to delay the Arak work as part of a deal, and Mr. Zarif was magnanimous about differences within the G6. He restated Iran’s willingness to reach an agreement, and the positive attitude taken by President Hassan Rouhani as he assumed office has made it harder for U.S. hawks to keep demonising Iran. Moreover, the U.S. public does not want to send troops to war again, and even Congress would probably hesitate to alienate them over that. The Geneva talks, therefore, is not only a welcome development, but one which means all parties concerned must do all they can to reach agreement.