Reading through the comments of various State Department officials leading the US delegation in the P5+1 talks with Iran—the latest round concluding last week and the next one scheduled for June 16–20—it’s hard not to detect a creeping pessimism. But it’s wrong to conclude that the talks—which last week included a three-hour bilateral meeting between the United States and Iran—won’t be successful, if not by the self-imposed deadline of July 20 then after the six-month extension that has been built into the framework of the negotiations. What’s needed most of all is patience, along with efforts to beat back the naysayers, the hawks and neoconservatives, the Israel lobby and its allies, and others, including the wrecking balls in Congress.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, after the latest round: “Agreement is possible. But illusions need to go. Opportunity shouldn’t be missed again.”
Laura Rozen, writing in Al Monitor, outlined the State Department’s view of the just-concluded talks this way:
“This was the ‘sticker shock’ meeting,” a former senior U.S. official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Friday.
“Significant differences remain on how many centrifuges Iran should be permitted to have to meet ‘practical needs’ for nuclear energy and research, as well as significant differences on the length of the agreement and the pace and scope of sanctions relief accompanying a final deal,” the former U.S. official said. “Other areas, like the possible military dimensions of past Iranian nuclear research, are also tricky.”
“So, instead of papering over these differences in a post-meeting statement, the negotiators apparently felt that they had to return to their capitals to consult with national leaders about how they might overcome them,” the former US official suggested. “It remains to be seen if that is possible, but both sides still appear committed to overcoming the nuclear crisis.”
Speaking to reporters last week via teleconference, a senior State Department official (who wouldn’t allow her name to be used) said:
The discussions this week have been useful, but they’ve also been at times difficult, which they knew—we knew they would be. We’ve said this repeatedly throughout this process, that this would be difficult. We are just at the beginning of the drafting process, and we have a significant way to go. There are significant gaps. These are complicated issues. As we’ve said, if this were easy to solve, it would have been done a long time ago.
This has, candidly, been a very slow and difficult process, and we are concerned with the short amount of time that is left. But let me be very clear: We believe we can still get it done. It’s important to remember that we’re at the beginning, and the parties are all at the table talking in a serious way. But we do not know yet, as we’ve always said, if we will be able at the end of this to conclude a comprehensive agreement.
In any negotiation there are good days and bad days, and there are ups and downs. This has been a moment of great difficulty, but one that was not entirely unexpected.
Until now, there was plenty of optimism about the current round of talks, and it still seems likely that a deal will be struck, despite the difficulties outlined by the American delegation. They’re getting down to the nitty-gritty of the particulars, attempting to write—paragraph by paragraph—a detailed accord that deals with a wide range of issues. And both sides agree that there will be no deal until every issue, big and small, is settled—in other words, there won’t be any partial agreements. The biggest sticking point appears to be exactly how big Iran’s enrichment program will be as part of a final accord; that is, how many centrifuges Iran will be able to spin, and what kind, and producing how much low-enriched (i.e., not weapons grade or anything close) uranium, for civilian purposes. (There are plenty of other issues, too, of course, including Iran’s heavy-water Arak reactor, its missile and related military programs, and plenty more.) The American side seems fixed on the idea of preventing Iran from quickly moving toward “breakout,” that is, an ability to produce a nuclear weapon quickly, or relatively quickly—it could still take years!—after an accord is reached. But as Jim Walsh, an MIT professor and arms control expert who’s long been involved in the Iran issue, said in response to last week’s talks: