A reported agreement between the United States and Iran to hold bilateral talks has provided a glimmer of hope after months of diplomatic stalemate over Iran’s nuclear programme.
The details and veracity of the apparent deal remained murky after the New York Times reported it in its 21 October edition. A White House spokesman denied that there was any agreement to conduct bilateral negotiations after the US presidential elections. Iran issued a similar denial.
However, what is clear is that arrangements are under way for a resumption of talks between Iran and the E3+3 (France, Germany, United Kingdom, plus China, Russia and the US, otherwise known as the P5+1). Those talks have not been held since a fruitless meeting in Moscow at the level of political directors on 18–19 June. The new ʹbreakthroughʹ may only be that Iran will meet bilaterally with the US in the context of the E3+3 talks, something Iran has so far refused to do, either in the April–June round or during two meetings that took place in 2010–2011.
On 9 October, the Guardian had reported that the E3+3 talks with Iran would resume after the US elections. Iran wanted to wait to see who would win: if President Barack Obama were to lose on 6 November, Iran would naturally be less interested in making a deal with a lame-duck administration.
Also of significance in the New York Times story was that American and Iranian officials had been holding ʹintense, secret exchangesʹ that started almost at the beginning of Obama’s term in 2009. The IISS heard hints of such exchanges last autumn, but this was the first confirmation. This aspect of the story has not been denied by Washington.
The E3+3 are preparing a ʹreformulatedʹ proposal that will for the first time offer Iran limited relief from sanctions if it agrees to significant limits on its uranium enrichment programme. One reason there has been no agreement in 2012 so far is that the E3+3 were unwilling to offer a reduction of the sanctions that were of most interest to Iran, and Tehran in turn was unwilling to offer attractive compromises. Each side demanded that the other move first in making concessions. The new proposal from the six powers reportedly attempts to overcome the sequencing impasse by choreographing a step-by-step series of reciprocal actions.
According to some reports, consideration is also being given to a more comprehensive approach that would acknowledge Iran’s right to enrichment at low levels if it accepts more intrusive monitoring and limits on production and accumulation. In any case, recent advances in Iran’s enrichment programme give the US and its European allies reason to demand more concessions from Iran in exchange for sanctions relief.