'Too early to judge': Talks over Iran's nuclear programme take place in Geneva... but possible settlement remains some way off

The conference is the first since the election of the reformist Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency

Talks in Geneva between the international community and Iran over the country's nuclear programme ended with an agreement on the framework for future meetings, but with any possible settlement remaining some way in the future.

The delegation from Tehran had put forward a three step strategy - with another meeting in a few weeks and a process lasting over many months - during which Iran would curtail uranium enrichment and allow greater access for inspectors in return for the easing of sanctions which had been hitting its beleaguered economy hard.

Separately, discussions on the 'margins' has resulted in progress towards normalisation of diplomatic relations between Britain and Iran. The UK had expelled the Iranian legation in London after the embassy in Tehran was ransacked by a mob two years ago.

The Iranian plan, titled “End an unnecessary crisis: opening new horizons”, envisages a further series of talks with a 'confidence building' meeting within six months followed by two further tranches of talks.

The conference in Geneva is the first since the election of the reformist Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency and his highly publicised telephone conversation with Barack Obama. The proceedings are said to have been amicable and joint communique is due to be issued by Mr Zarif and EU foreign policy commissioner Catherine Ashton.

Although details are yet to be confirmed, it is believed that Iran had mooted the possibility of stopping the enrichment, and allowing greater oversight in the future. However it seemed unlikely that Tehran will sign 'additional protocols' which will allow the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) to carry out extensive inspections in the near future. 

One key element of the Protocols would be for the nuclear watchdog to carry out 'spot checks'. An Iranian official had stated such inspections would be permitted under the proposals at an early date. At present Iran is only obliged to inform the IAEA three months before moving fissile material to nuclear sites.

But Abbas Araqchi, another of the deputy foreign ministers cautioned: “None of these issues exist in the first step, but they are part of our last step. It is early to judge and say we made progress in bringing our views closer together. We will hear their views and if there is any alignment with in our views, then we can take a step forward.”

Iran may not find it particularly difficult to temporarily halt enrichment to more than 20 per cent. Ali Larijani, the highly influential parliamentary speaker, has already strongly hinted at concessions being made on the point, saying that the country had a surplus of enriched uranium.

What Iran expects in return, an easing of sanctions, may prove much more problematic. Foreign Secretary William Hague stated: “We are not today in a position to make any changes in those sanctions. Sanctions must continue. Sanctions are important part of bringing Iran to the negotiating table.”

Nevertheless the European Union may prove to be more emollient on the issue; but the punitive measures taken by the US is likely to be a sticking point.

The easing of restrictions on items like medical supplies, travel and spare parts for aircraft may go through, but anything more substantial is likely to run into stern opposition in Congress where the Israeli lobby is influential.

Senior members such as Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, hold that Iran must stop even low-level enrichment before the first steps are taken in easing sanctions. Furthermore, failure to do so may result in even tougher ones being imposed.

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