Iran’s professed willingness to compromise on its nuclear weapons program was welcomed by the US and the EU on Wednesday, as six-party talks in Geneva ended without a diplomatic solution but with an agreement to resume talks there on November 7-8.
“The Iranian proposal was a new proposal with a level of seriousness and substance that we had not seen before,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Yet Carney also urged caution. “No one should expect a breakthrough overnight,” he said. “These are complicated issues. They are technical issues and as [US President Barack Obama] has said, the history of mistrust is very deep.”
The six parties participating in the dialogue – the US, Russia, China, Great Britain, France and Germany – agreed not to release any concrete details of the proposals made by the Iranian delegation, led by Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif. But in a press conference after the meeting, Zarif stood firm on the right of his country to continue to enrich uranium.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has insisted that the international community maintain economic sanctions against Iran until it halts such enrichment and removes the uranium from its territory. He also wants Tehran to dismantle its nuclear weapons facilities.
Iran should be tested by "its actions not its words," a senior Israeli official said Wednesday night in a message sent from Netayahu's office.
"It must be remembered that Iran continues to crudely violate UN Security Council resolutions including the June 2010 Resolution 1929 that determined among other things, that Iran must fully suspend the enrichment of uranium, to reprocess its fissile material and to cease all activity related to heavy water. It also said that Iran should refrain from activity connected to the development of nuclear warheads or ballistic missiles," the officials said.
Netanyahu plans to reiterate his concerns to the US when he meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome next week.
Zarif said his country should be allowed to enrich uranium for nuclear power purposes.
“The right of Iran to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, including enrichment, can, in fact, be exercised with the necessary political will without any proliferation concerns,” he said.
The talks were fruitful, according to the Iranian foreign minister.
“Iran is interested in resolving this issue,” he said. “There is no reason for the continuation of this problem.”
In Geneva, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi suggested that Tehran was prepared to address long-standing calls for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, to have wider and more intrusive inspection powers.
Araqchi, who headed his government’s delegation to the talks, also told the official IRNA news agency that measures related to uranium enrichment were part of the Iranian proposal, but hinted that the Islamic Republic was not inclined to make its concessions quickly.
“Neither of these issues are within the first step [of the Iranian proposal] but form part of our last steps,” he said without elaborating in comments reported on Wednesday.
Zarif said earlier in a post on Facebook that secrecy was working in the negotiators’ favor.
“Normally, the less negotiators leak news, the more it shows the seriousness of the negotiations and the possibility of reaching an agreement,” he wrote.
Diplomats said proposals by Iranian envoys regarding eventual “confidence-building” steps included halting 20-percent enrichment and possibly converting at least some of stockpiles already enriched to this level – material that is only a short technical step away from being made weapons-grade – to uranium oxide suitable for processing into reactor fuel.
The sequencing of any concessions by Iran and any sanctions relief by the West could prove a stumbling block en route to a verifiable landmark deal. Western officials have repeatedly said Iran must suspend enriching uranium to 20% fissile purity, their main worry, before sanctions are eased.
A US official, insisting on anonymity, echoed the optimism at the White House when he said on Wednesday: “I’ve been doing this now for about two years. And I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before.”
The official called it “a beginning.”
“Beginnings are rarely groundbreaking because you are putting pieces on the table,” the official said. “We are very clear that Iran must not acquire a nuclear weapon. That’s the outcome we’re seeking to achieve.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergev Ryabkov, who represented his country in Geneva, was more skeptical.
“The result is better than in Almaty [talks that took place in April], but it does not guarantee further progress,” he said, according to the Interfax news agency. “There could have been better cooperation.”
The Itar-Tass news agency quoted Ryabkov as saying there was “almost the lack of required trust” in Geneva.
“The positions of the Iranian side and the group [of six powers] are wide apart from each other – the distance can be measured in kilometers, while advances forward can be measured in steps – half a meter each,” he said.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who led the talks with Zarif on behalf of the six parties, said they had been “the most detailed we have ever had, by a long way.”
A joint statement Ashton released with Zarif after the talks mentioned meetings that would take place before the next round.
“The participants also agreed that [the P5+1] and Iranian nuclear, scientific and sanctions experts will convene before the next meeting to address differences and to develop practical steps,” the statement said.
“When we have been talking and in our discussions in these last days we know that we have to look for a first step, a confidence- building step, and we know we have to be clear about the last steps and to do that in the context of the objective overall. That is the framework we have worked within,” Ashton said at a news conference.
It is the idea of a confidencebuilding measure offered to Iran that concerns Israel, particularly if it means easing economic sanctions precisely at a moment when Jerusalem believes they appear to be working.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday that the Iranians presented a plan that was substantive enough to warrant another round of talks.
“Having a substantive discussion with technical details is an action,” she said.
But differences in opinion remain between the P5+1 and Iran regarding what sanctions relief might be considered appropriate, though all parties within the Western negotiating alliance publicly claimed unanimity going into the talks.
Among the options the US is weighing is delaying a new round of sanctions.
The Obama administration had not yet made an official determination whether to ask Congress to delay new sanctions legislation, Psaki said.
“I don’t have a prediction of that at this point,” she said, adding that “anything we would do would be proportionate.”
Key foreign policy leaders in the US Senate wrote to Obama on Friday warning that they would push forward with new sanctions legislation in the absence of major, demonstrable concessions from Tehran.
The legislation, in its current form, would eliminate waivers on companies still buying Iranian oil that is based in allied nations, and would target Iran’s remaining foreign exchange reserves.
“I wouldn’t think of this as something tied with a bow at this point,” Psaki said.
Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, who led the US delegation to the Geneva talks, testified before Congress last month that the White House would seek a concrete and verifiable proposal from the Iranian delegation before considering the suspension or alteration of sanctions.
As for Israel, it is both hopeful and concerned about nuclear talks with Iran, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Wednesday.
“The State of Israel is not closing the door to a diplomatic solution. If an agreement is signed preventing Iran from having nuclear capabilities, we will be happy with it,” Steinitz explained, saying the agreement should follow “the Libyan model,” but not “the North Korean model.”
Under Western pressure, Libya ended its nuclear program. North Korea did not, although it said it would.
As far as Israel is concerned, Tehran can use nuclear power for peaceful purposes, but only if it buys nuclear fuel from other countries, Steinitz added.
At the same time, though, he said: “We’re worried Geneva 2013 will end up like Munich 1938.”
It was the Munich Agreement just prior to the outbreak of World War II that allowed Nazi Germany to annex Czechoslovakia, leading then-British prime minister Neville Chamberlain to announce there would be “peace in our time.”
Iran’s Araqchi told Israel Radio on Wednesday that any agreement reached between the Western powers and Tehran over its nuclear program “will open new horizons in our relations with all of these states.”
When asked whether Israel could “live with” Iran’s proposed concessions in its talks with the West, Araqchi answered in the affirmative.
He did not know at the time that he was speaking with an Israeli reporter.
Reuters and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.