US Lightens Tone in Iran Talks

The last round of Iran nuclear talks in Vienna on 20 February was wrapped up in a surprising way for observers. Iran and world powers in comprehensive talks agreed the framework to reach a final agreement — hopefully in the next four months.

While many were worried that the two most important sides to the talks — Iran and the US — may be not able to agree on major issues, it turned everyone deemed the talks good and constructive.

“We had three very productive days during which we have identified all of the issues we need to address in reaching a comprehensive and final agreement,” European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton said.

This positive outlook was also brought to Iran upon Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif’s arrival to Tehran Saturday. “We can reach a deal with the P5+1 group in the talks over Iran’s nuclear programme,” Zarif said.

The recent talks began in Vienna just a day after a very stormy speech delivered by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He said he is not optimistic about the talks, but he is not against either. Khamenei was angry because the US administration raised concerns on other issues at the nuclear talks.

“They have to deal with matters related to their ballistic missile programme that are included in the United Nations Security Council resolution, that is part of explicitly — according to the Joint Plan of Action — the comprehensive resolution negotiation,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

The US and its allies view Iran’s missiles as part of the country’s potential nuclear threat, thus a subject for talks on a permanent nuclear agreement with Tehran. But Iran says the missiles are part of its defence establishment and beyond the limits of nuclear talks.

John Limbert the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, questioned if a final deal with Iran could be reached without reference to the six UN adopted resolutions on Iran’s nuclear programme.

“What strikes me is the remarkable change in tone of these meetings. Just a few months ago the sides would present prepared positions, reject what the other side proposed, and then argue endlessly over where and when to meet again. Now both sides describe the encounters as professional and serious,” Limbert said.

Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs and head of the American negotiation team in the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany), said Saturday, 22 February, that the goal is to reach a permanent agreement with Iran by 20 July. Sherman was speaking to reporters in Jerusalem, where she arrived in order to brief the Israelis on the latest round of talks with Iran. In what appeared to be a warning to Israel, she said the United States hopes no one will interfere with the talks.

Sherman’s remarks can be seen as an indication that US President Barack Obama is determined to close the Iran nuclear file as soon as possible and before Iranian conservatives influence the talks or gain direct access through any domestic reshuffle in Iran.

While the US has rushed to strike a deal, hardliners in Iran were caught off guard. Just a day before talks begin, Ayatollah Khamenei prepared the ground to withdraw the Iranian negotiation team if the US continued to raise related subjects, or military threatened Iran. The message was well understood. Sherman said: “It will be critical that our negotiators and partners have the space to get this done diplomatically. The talks with Iran will be very hard and we can’t afford to make it even harder.”

With Iranians pleased with the new US tone and diplomacy, reformist newspapers dared to place Sherman’s picture on their front pages, claiming victory. Headlines read: “In the heart of the Israeli, ‘Iran’s right to enrich uranium has been recognised,’ said Wendy Sherman.”

Sherman said Iran’s nuclear programme would have to be “limited, discreet, constrained, monitored and verified”. Has this change in tone been appreciated in Iranian political circles, especially by Supreme Leader Khamenei?

“I don’t know if people appreciate the change, but in my view, especially from the US perspective, it is a radical shift after 34 years of not communicating, or exchanging insults and threats,” Limbert told Al-Ahram Weekly.

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