Iran's announcement that it has halted enriching uranium to a level close to bomb-grade appears to signal rare progress in nuclear talks. But there is much working against a deal.
By most accounts, the negotiations in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear program are going well.
Diplomats have been tight-lipped, but signals sent by Iran and by diplomats from the US and other world powers indicate the sides are finding common ground in the dispute over Iran's nuclear intentions. Tehran insists its program is for research and electricity generation, but the US and others, particularly Israel, are skeptical.
For optimists, a claim Thursday that Iran has halted enrichment of uranium to the critical 20-percent threshold is a sign that 24 years of bile and bluster between Tehran and Washington may be at an end.
A halt to 20 percent enrichment is among the key concessions wanted by the West, and according to The Associated Press, Iran made that offer at last week's talks. (Twenty percent is important because the most challenging part of uranium enrichment happens below that threshold; once you get to 20 percent, it’s relatively easy to enrich up to bomb-grade levels).
Unnamed US officials say talks are going well.
“I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before,” said one US negotiator who gave reporters an off-the-record briefing last week.
The loudest voice in the pessimists' camp is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wants to force the Iranians to give up their fissile material altogether. He insists Iran open up its underground facilities and says the only reason someone would burrow scientific facilities into mountainsides is to protect them from air strikes, a point he reiterated in meetings with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday.
"They should get rid of the amassed fissile material, and they shouldn't have underground nuclear facilities," Netanyahu was quoted as saying. Mr. Kerry has insisted the US is proceeding with “eyes wide open” when it comes to negotiating with the Iranians, and that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”
There are plenty of trends pointing toward a breakthrough. Economic sanctions appear to be having a serious impact on the Iranian economy (though they may not be as debilitating as some have suggested.) The West succeeded in getting Iran’s closest ally, Syria, to give up its chemical weapons, for instance.
But there are also obstacles. Iran’s recently elected president, Hassan Rouhani, is considered a centrist among Iranian officials and faces growing criticism from hardliners that Mr. Rouhani and the US-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are conceding too much to the US.
Though Rouhani was elected, Iran’s political system means that the person who has ultimate authority is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been sending mixed signals about the talks. The comment that gave the optimists most hope was Mr. Khamenei call a few weeks back for “heroic flexibility.” But the commentary from conservative publications in Tehran suggests behind-the-scenes debate.
In the US, meanwhile, some hawkish members of Congress say they’ve been at least partially reassured by briefings from the White House on the negotiations. That, however, hasn’t stopped those who believe Iran isn’t to be trusted in any way shape or form, most notably Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino owner, influential Israel supporter and funder of US conservative politicians, who on Tuesday called for the US to launch a nuclear strike on the Iranian desert.
Current betting favors some sort of agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. But at this point whether the agreement will have lasting power is anyone’s guess.
The next round of Geneva talks resume on Nov. 7.