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Deal or no deal? Both Iran and the West must now give ground

Circumstances for diplomacy are promising, but the devil comes with the details

Formal negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme start in Geneva tomorrow amid unusually high hopes of meaningful progress. But it would be as well not to expect too much.

There is no question that recent months have seen a marked thawing in relations with the West. The new Iranian President has done much to indicate his willingness to negotiate. He has released political prisoners, talked on the telephone to his US counterpart (a first since the 1979 revolution), and spoken publicly of his desire to reach resolution on the nuclear question in “months not years”.

If the replacement of the aggressively truculent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the apparently more liberal Hassan Rouhani has rendered Iran’s domestic politics more amenable, the dire need to rescue the economy from painful sanctions tends no less towards a deal. There is also a following wind in the US. With no more elections to fight, a second-term Barack Obama is less constrained; and the regional instability caused by Syria will focus minds.

So much for the bigger picture, though. Agreement will be made or broken by the details, and here little has changed. Posturing has already begun, in fact. Yesterday, Tehran’s Deputy Foreign Minister explicitly rejected the demand that Iran send its highly enriched nuclear material out of the country. Although Abbas Araqchi appeared to give ground in other areas – over “the form, amount and levels of enrichment”, for example – the public setting of a “red line” ahead of the talks speaks volumes about the politicking that will make a meaningful accord even more difficult to reach.

True, the auspices are better than they have been for many years. But the hard part starts now.