It’s enough to glance at Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s Facebook page to grasp the joy, almost gaiety, that overtook him on the eve of the nuclear negotiations that began Thursday in Geneva. In almost emotional detail, he described his meeting with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who noted that for a French and Iranian foreign minister to be meeting in such a positive atmosphere was itself a novelty. “We both expressed hope that the talks would succeed,” Zarif wrote.
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Soon afterward, he declared that “if the parties make the necessary effort,” an initial agreement could be reached that very day. Not for the first time, it seems the Iranians are actively pushing for a quick agreement, seeking an initial achievement that would block the internal opposition to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani, and lengthen the rope the country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has given him.
What would constitute an achievement at the two-day talks, concluding Friday? An Iranian website, citing “informed sources,” said Tehran sought to remove the sanctions on its central bank and restrictions on its oil ministry. This report claimed that an agreement on lifting those sanctions for six months had already been reached in preparatory talks over the last three weeks, and this could explain Zarif’s optimistic messages. Sanctions on Iran’s central bank are relatively easy to remove, since the law allows U.S. President Barack Obama to waive them without needing to seek approval from Congress.
But the report didn’t mention what price Iran would have to pay for this achievement.
For the West, the key is apparently a freeze on uranium enrichment – not a complete end to enrichment, but a six-month hiatus - as one of the confidence-building measures on which the negotiations will be based. However, it’s still unclear whether this freeze would apply to all enrichment, including to a level of 3.5 to 5 percent, or only to 20 percent enrichment. Iran has already hinted that it would be willing to freeze the latter, but has not so far indicated any willingness to freeze low-level enrichment.
For Iran, such a deal would grant it access to about $50 billion in overseas bank deposits, money received in payment for oil or other exports. An end to central bank sanctions would also allow it to provide merchants with bank guarantees for overseas deals, thereby reducing their dependence on cash transactions.
This sum wouldn’t significantly change Iran’s economic situation, but it could serve as proof that Rohani’s conciliatory policies are bearing fruit and thus persuade Khamenei to give him more time to pursue these policies. This matters because, in addition to satisfying the West, Rohani must also allay the fears of his country’s conservatives, who are currently remaining silent mainly because he has Khamenei’s backing.
Both the lifting of sanctions on the central bank and a freeze on enrichment are easily reversible; either side could do so at any moment. In contrast, any easing of the more significant sanctions, some of which were imposed by the UN Security Council, will come only in the final stages of the negotiations, since this would effectively be irreversible. Adopting these sanctions required an enormous international effort and, if they are lifted, it’s doubtful that enough international support could ever be mobilized to reinstate them.
Iran’s goal is to remove all the sanctions within six months to a year. The question is whether the parties will wait until the end of the six-month trial period to decide on the next steps, or whether they will be able to conclude the principles of a final deal during this trial period, thereby shortening the time until they are able to announce an “end of the conflict” between Iran and the West.
If an agreement is reached Friday on Iran’s offer and the West’s quid pro quo, Iran will also be free of the threat of a military attack – not only from the United States, but also from Israel. According to diplomatic sources, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised that Israel won’t attack Iran during the negotiations, as long as Iran isn’t progressing toward the development of nuclear weapons.
“The criticism of Iran, and of the negotiations with it, that is being heard from Israel is understandable,” a European diplomat told Haaretz. “But [Israel] must take care not to overdo it, because it is liable to be pushed into a corner in which it will no longer be relevant, even if it is right. The atmosphere in both Europe and the United States is that we’re on the brink of a new era with Iran. And in such a situation, people don’t like party poopers.”