US and Iran Speak ‘Same Language’ in Nuclear Talks

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Geneva__ Western and Iranian diplomats hailed a new pace, candor and mutual will to try to forge a process to resolve international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, but acknowledged they were at the beginning of a still complex and difficult negotiation whose success is not guaranteed.

“The good news, we are getting to a place where one can imagine we could possibly have a process that could lead to an agreement,” a senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists Wednesday at the end of two days of nuclear negotiations here, the first since the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

“I have never had such intense, detailed, straight-forward, candid conversations with the Iran delegation before,” the American official said. “The discussions took place in English…the pace of discussions was much better. It creates the ability to have a back and forth.”

“There are [still] serious differences.” the U.S. official said. We “got more today than we have ever gotten before, but there’s still a whole lot more we have to get.”

“Both sides are serious, both sides want to find common ground,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking in English, told journalists at a press conference at the conclusion of talks here. “Iran is interested in resolving this issue.”

Zarif, at the Geneva talks, “presented an outline of a plan as a proposed basis for negotiations, which is being carefully considered” by the six world powers, Catherine Ashton, European Union foreign policy chief, told a press conference here Wednesday, part of a rare joint statement by Iran and the so-called P5+1.

The two sides agreed to meet again in Geneva Nov. 7-8, and said that technical experts on both the nuclear and sanctions issues would be meeting before that.

The US official suggested that it would probably be premature for P5+1 foreign ministers and US Secretary of State John Kerry to lead delegations to the next Geneva meeting in just three weeks time, given that there are still so many complex technical, and more fundamental, issues to resolve. The new Iranian leadership had previously expressed the conviction that progress could be made more quickly at the ministerial level. But Zarif on Wednesday struck a diplomatic tone, expressing satisfaction with how the negotiations had been conducted here, often by deputies, and said foreign ministers could be summoned when needed.

“We are prepared to meet at the ministerial level whenever necesaary,” Zarif said. “I am content with the last few days, how colleagues were able to conduct the negotiations…it was a serious and substantive negotiation. …But I think at a certain stage, [the negotiations] will need more political direction.”

The two sides also agreed not to publicly disclose the details of the Iranian proposal, given the sensitivity of the issues involved, both in Iran and foreign capitals.

“The details require serious and in depth negotiations,” Zarif said. “We will be doing the negotiations in the negotiating room, not [in public, and] through the press. The seriousness and importance of the details requires us to be very vigilant.”

One party not at the talks that is unlikely to patiently await the details to be worked out before moving forward with new sanctions is Congress. The senior US official said she would be probably be briefing members behind closed doors in classified session upon her return.

“If we have what I call the high class problem of a verifiable and sound agreement that addresses all of the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and assures the world [Iran won’t get a nuclear weapon], I feel confident that everyone engaged in this process will support that outcome, including the U.S. Congress,” the American official said. “None of us want to undo the [sanctions architecture] in place before we have results.”

“Overall, there was modest progress,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran researcher at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “The very fact that the two sides are speaking the same language after all these years…..is the most we could expect from these two days of talks.”

Zarif conducted his press conference Wednesdsy, speaking in both fluent English and Persian, from a wheel chair, having traveled to Geneva with severe back pain, accompanied by a doctor. The American official said many of the diplomats here, fellow veterans of constant air travel and chronic back pain, had expressed their empathy to Zarif and recommended to him various remedies.

“Not one of us doesn’t have a back problem,” the US official said, saying Zarif had told them he had undergone an acupuncture treatment today. Diplomatic colleagues here offered him “books they thought he should read, things he might try. …We all have suffered.”

(Photo of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaking in Geneva October 16, 2013. By Reuters.)