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World Politics

Iran nuclear talks: Quiet optimism over deal between Islamic State and the West on weapons programme

US releases $1bn of Iranian assets as IAEA reports the country has reduced uranium stockpile

All sides in the effort to resolve the stand-off between the West and Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons ambitions have agreed to hold a new round of expert-level negotiations in New York beginning 5 May amid tentative indications that so far, at least, positive progress is being made.

Keeping its side of an interim bargain struck last November and implemented in January, the Joint Plan of Action, the White House has this month released $1bn-worth of Iranian assets in two instalments, the last on 15 April. And last week the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran has so far fulfilled its part of what was agreed, dramatically reducing its stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium.

While significant hurdles remain before a final and comprehensive deal can be reached ahead of an informal deadline of 20 July, quiet optimism is gathering around the talks. That assessment stands in sharp contrast with almost every other foreign affairs dossier currently on President Barack Obama’s desk, be it concerning Syria, Russia, Ukraine or the faltering Middle East peace process.

The talks in New York, to be held at the UN on the fringes of a Non-Proliferation Treaty meeting, will be followed up by high-level talks between foreign ministers of Iran as well as the so-called P5+1 – China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US, plus Germany – in Vienna on 13 May.

If the negotiations are still on track it is in spite of loud opposition from hard-line critics of the putative deal both in Iran, on Capitol Hill and, as ever, from inside Israel. Yet those at the negotiating table, including the Iranians, have so far seemed determined to ignore those pressures.

“There is the political will to get an answer,” Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, remarked during a visit to Abu Dhabi last week. “The domestic audience will be satisfied if we have a good deal. Of course some people will never be satisfied but that is fine because we have a pluralistic society.” He crucially has the support of the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, as well as the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Earlier this week, Mr Zarif took to Twitter to signal his determination to move forward in return for sanctions relief. “As IAEA has once again confirmed, we’re keeping our pledges... intend to continue doing so,” he said. “Expecting reciprocity in this regard.” He added: “We’ll negotiate at the negotiating table, not in public. We should be forward-looking to proceed. Onus to succeed on all sides to overcome hurdles”.

Meanwhile, in Washington the White House continues to resist calls from some in Congress to stall the release of Iranian assets that had been frozen by sanctions as well as Israeli exhortations to take a stronger line with Tehran. Further encouragement has been drawn by an Iranian concession announced last week radically to reduce the amount of plutonium that could be made at a new heavy-water reactor at Arak. There had been fears that its scientists could switch to plutonium from enriched uranium to build a bomb.

“I’m actually starting to believe that an agreement is possible,” David Petraeus, the former CIA director, told an audience at Harvard University this month. He went on: “It could be that it’s possible before this particular six-month deadline expires,” referring to the target of concluding an agreement by 20 July.

A key issue is whether Iran could be barred from any uranium enrichment in the future or if, as seems more likely, it will be free to maintain its ability to enrich to 5 per cent so it can continue to generate isotopes for medical research and service its nuclear energy sector. Giving it only a 5 per cent leeway would greatly lengthen the lead time it would need to make a bomb were it to renege on the pact in the future. 

At a hearing last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Republican, condemned the Secretary of State John Kerry for pursing a deal, which, he said, might only extend the lead time for Iran to produce a bomb to between six and 12 months, rather than eliminating the possibility. “I don’t think we did everything that we’ve done to only get a six to 12-month lead time,” he said.