As negotiations begin in Geneva, Mohammad Javad Zarif says ‘only a few more steps’ needed to reach agreement
Iranian negotiators are entering new round of nuclear talks with major powers in Geneva, insisting they are optimistic that a deal is possible in the course of the two-day meeting.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said the negotiators only needed to make “a few more steps” to reach agreement, but it would “not be a disaster” if a final accord had to be left to a subsequent round.
Speaking to France 24 in Paris on his way to Thursday’s talks, Zarif said: “I believe it is possible to reach an agreement during this meeting, but I can only talk for our side, I cannot talk for the other side.”
“I believe we’ve come very far in the last three rounds, so we [only] need to make a few more steps,” said the foreign minister. “We are prepared to make them in Geneva. But if we can’t take them in Geneva, we’ll take them in the next round.”
An unnamed senior US official, talking to journalists on the eve of talks agreed that an interim deal was within reach.
“I do see the potential outlines of a first step,” the official said. “I do think it can be written on a piece of paper, probably more than one. I hope sooner rather than later. I would like to stop Iran’s programme from advancing further.”
The official said the aim of a first deal would be to “put some time on the clock”, freezing Iran’s nuclear progress and buying time for negotiations on a more comprehensive and enduring agreement.
Zarif will be meeting the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and senior diplomats from the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China. Ashton’s spokesman, Michael Mann, said: “The nuclear talks are complex and have entered a serious phase.”
“The E3+3 and Iran have agreed to keep the talks confidential in order to focus on the substance.”
At the previous round of talks three weeks ago – the first since the election of President Rouhani – all sides hailed what they described as a new, positive atmosphere.
Sources involved in the October talks in Geneva have said that Iranians were pursuing a short-term deal, involving a trade-off between curbs on the level of its uranium enrichment and sanctions relief, at the same time as reassurance that a long-term settlement would guarantee the country’s right to carry out enrichment in principle and a complete lifting of sanctions, while Iran would agree to undergo stringent inspections.
Iran would stop producing 20%, medium-enriched, uranium – the immediate proliferation concern as it can relatively easily be converted into weapons-grade material – but would not send its existing stockpile out of the country. That could be converted into reactor fuel, which is more difficult to enrich further.
“Clearly the Iranians want to make progress quickly. They want to see tangible results and compensation. This has been a clear theme. They are not prepared to give things away in return for nothing,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “There is a limit to the patience of the Iranian establishment and Rouhani needs to deliver. He needs to be seen as having achieved soomething for his own people in return for the concessions he might appear to be making at the bargaining table. And that is the real pressure on him and it has to be delivered soon.”
Negotiators at all sides in Geneva are concerned that the US Congress could sabotage hopes of a deal by approving new sanctions in midst of talks, and the administration has appealed to senators, currently studying a sanctions bill, to show restraint while the negotiations are under way.
Rouhani’s negotiating team has meanwhile come under fire from hardliners in Iran, who have criticised the secretly surrounding Iran’s negotiating position. Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, has held meetings with Zarif and other members of the country’s nuclear negotiating team but details of the the session has not been made public.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threw his weight behind Rouhani’s negotiating team on Sunday.
“No one should consider our negotiators as compromisers,” he said ahead of the anniversary of the 1979 US hostage crisis. “They have a difficult mission and no one must weaken an official who is busy with work.”
Many Iranians are not getting a full account of the international controversy over the country’s nuclear programme because of severe restrictions on press coverage of the issue, according to the press freedom advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders.
The group said: “Ever since the revelations about Iran’s nuclear activities at the start of the past decade, any coverage of this issue has been banned by the many government bodies responsible for monitoring and regulating the media.”
“Journalists are constantly censored, not only by the ministry of culture and Islamic orientation and its censorship wing, the press authorisation and surveillance commission, but also by the ministry of intelligence, the Revolutionary Guards, the public prosecutor and the high council for national security.
“They are forbidden to cover all nuclear matters such as the signing of an International Atomic Energy Agency protocol, the negotiations about Iran’s nuclear programme with the “5+1″ group [China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom and United States], representing the international community, and even nuclear energy’s environmental impact and the cost of building nuclear power plants.”
In October 2003, the newspaper Entekhab was closed down due to the publication of an article revealing the extent of the internal feud among Iran’s many political institutions over the question of whether Iran should sign the IAEA additional protocol. The newspaper’s editor, Mohamad Mehdi Faghihi and its political editor, Mohsen Mandegari, were subsequently summoned to the court, Reporters Without Borders said. Other Iranian media organisations have also been chastised for expressing views other than the official line about the country’s nuclear programme, including the conservative news website Tabnak.
“Many journalists in different cities have been threatened or arrested on spying charges over the years for referring to nuclear energy issues,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This censorship of nuclear coverage violates journalists’ freedom to inform and Iranians’ right to be informed.
“Journalists have a fundamental role to play as regards informing the public on such sensitive matters, but the Iranian authorities try to suppress all independent coverage of nuclear issues so that only the official version is available.”
Earlier this week, Iran’s Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi launched an appeal, signed by around 100 Iranian activists and campaigners, calling for a national dialogue on nuclear energy.
“The issue of nuclear energy in Iran has always been left to the government of the day, both before and after the revolution, and for this reason is regarded as a political matter,” a statement launching the appeal said. “But it is not just a political issue. It also concerns the economy, society and the environment and therefore affects all Iranian citizens.
It adds: “Iranians do not have enough information about the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy for their country, although it is a subject of national concern that directly influences people’s daily lives. It is why we are subjected to unprecedented sanctions and why our country has been threatened with war.”
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