New Iranian president Hassan Rowhani

New Iranian president Hassan Rowhani.

GENEVA: The United States and Iran head into Thursday negotiations full of growing optimism that a deal can be reached on the future of Iran’s nuclear program. One of the key reasons for this optimism is the apparent willingness of the US Congress and of major American Jewish groups to refrain from demanding new sanctions against Iran for now.

The United States has apparently won a two-month pause from four U.S. groups it met with last week, including the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Anti-Defamation League. A source close to the talks told Breaking Defense that Washington pushed for a longer pause but that agreement had been reached, despite public protests by AIPAC that they would not back off in their lobbying Congress for sanctions. Israel remains supportive of American diplomatic efforts, as it has been for years despite its protests that Iran is just playing for time while increasing its nuclear capacities.

This opens the way for a sustained diplomatic push. “What we’re looking for now is a first phase, a first step, an initial understanding that stops Iran’s nuclear program from moving forward for the first time in decades and potentially rolls some of it back,” a senior US official told reporters. This first step, after a decade of fruitless negotiations, would hopefully clear the way towards “a comprehensive final agreement that will resolve all questions about Iran’s nuclear program,” including whether the Islamic Republic has done weapons work, the official said.

The Iranian take had a similar ring to it. “We are prepared to reach an agreement,” Iranian foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator Javad Zarif said in a television interview. “We need to see an endgame that we can all agree with and we need to take a first step mutually on all sides so that we address the immediate concerns of the various sides in these negotiations. I believe it’s not that difficult to reach that agreement. I believe it’s even possible to reach that agreement during this meeting (this week in Geneva),” Zarif said.

This brightly optimistic tone from both sides is striking. There has, after all, been no real progress since the new era of US-Iranian diplomacy began in September with the first direct contacts between senior officials from the two nations since the Iranian revolution in 1979. Iran has managed during a decade of talks to build up a nuclear program with over 18,000 centrifuges installed, with over 10,000 actually spinning with uranium gas for enrichment, and with stockpiles of thousands of pounds of enriched uranium. Fundamental differences remain over what the first step will look like, let alone the shape of a final agreement. The bottom line is that Iran does not want to suspend uranium enrichment, the process which makes what can be fuel for civilian power reactors or the explosive core of atom bombs. The United States, leader of the six nations negotiating with Iran, wants to see enrichment reined in enough to guarantee that the Islamic Republic cannot “break out” and in a dash make enough weapon-grade uranium to produce a nuclear weapon. (CORRECTED “Tons” to “pounds” of enriched uranium. Nov. 7 at 10:52 a.m.)

Zarif insisted that continued enrichment for Iran must be part of any final solution and that sanctions that have devastated Iran’s oil sales and ability to trade internationally must be lifted. But the US focus, the senior US official said, is for a first step that would “halt their program from advancing further.” Then, with Iran’s nuclear work under control, a final solution could be sketched out.

The U.S. official said Washington was “prepared to offer limited, targeted and reversible sanctions relief. We are not talking about touching the core architecture of Iranian sanctions regime in this first step in any way.” And if a comprehensive, final agreement is not reached “any economic relief we will have given Iran can in fact be reversed.”

The goal in a first step is to “address the level of enrichment, the stockpiles of enrichment, the capacity of their facilities, the verification monitoring, all of those elements must be undertaken and resolved in a first step.” This would “put time on the clock” by halting Iran’s nuclear progress, which would leave room for talks. The period of time for this first phase that has been most discussed is six months, the U.S. official said.

That pause would include no new sanctions against Iran, the Americans say. Heightened punitive measures would be “harmful” and risk derailing the negotiations. But, as Iranian officials must know, in the end “we’re all pro-sanctions” if Iran proves to be recalcitrant, the US official stressed.

Michael Adler studies the Iranian nuclear program and non-proliferation at the Wilson Center in Washington.



  • Don Bacon

    “…with stockpiles of thousands of tons of enriched uranium”

    Iran has produced 8960 kg (9.9 tons) of UF6 enriched up to 5% U-235, of which 6357 kg (7.0 tons) remain in the form of UF6 enriched up to 5% U-235 and the rest has been further processed to 161.6 kg (0.2 tons) of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235 since production began

    • Colin Clark


      Thanks for spotting this. Corrected story to say pounds. One of the perils of editing late at night after long day.

  • Don Bacon

    Israel remains supportive of American diplomatic efforts

    Baloney. Netanyahu:

    “I would be very worried of any partial deal that would enable Iran to maintain [uranium-enriching] capabilities, but begin to reduce sanctions … this could undermine the longevity and durability of the sanctions regime.”

    • Colin Clark

      Blather is not the same as reality. Israel has taken no actions that any of us know about to screw these talks up. They know the only way they can act alone is military and that carries incredibly high risks given Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon etc etc.

  • Don Bacon

    There has, after all, been no real progress since the new era of
    US-Iranian diplomacy began in September with the first direct contacts
    between senior officials from the two nations since the Iranian
    revolution in 1979.

    In 2010 Iran, Brazil and Turkey agreed on a 20% uranium swap which Obama had first advocated and then squashed with additional sanctions.

    • 10579

      prior to the 1979 iranian revolution you had the Bush family ‘for years screwing around with Iranian politics in order to secure the oil rights for the us and themselves.

  • Turgidson

    So basically we are stuck on stupid with or foreign policy? Not encouraging at all. I hope the Israelis are paying attention.

    • 10579

      well just look who we have heading it up, john “lurch” kerry,aka swiftboat john, And one of his statements, follow me boys and i’ll have you out of here in less than 3 months. Then he shot himself in the butt with a rickochet bullet off a rockand was gone. Born into money also helps. and calling your men killers of women and children.don’t forget he was a leader in vietnam,so was that his call.Now they have him running all over the world setting foriegn policy for this nation of ours.