Geneva outreach

Focus on expanding space for a deal on Iran's nuclear programme, instead of a grand bargain

The two days of discussion on Iran's nuclear programme in Geneva have been described by the EU's foreign policy head as the "most detailed talks ever", although the specifics of the Iranian proposal have not been made public. After Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, took the world by surprise at the UN General Assembly by signalling a reorientation of Tehran's foreign policy, the West felt compelled to retrieve the initiative. The Geneva talks, which followed the US-Iran meeting in New York and Rouhani's historic phone call to Barack Obama, marked a new beginning.

The nuclear programme, that has isolated Iran, worries nuclear experts on three counts: the scale of its uranium enrichment far greater than the needs of power production; an underground enrichment facility too small for a civil programme but just right for a military one; and its enrichment of uranium up to 20 per cent just one step from nuclear weapons capability. The West's key demands are that Iran cease enrichment to 20 per cent, ship most stockpiles of 20 per cent enriched uranium abroad, allow a comprehensive verification regime and shut down the Fordo facility that undertakes high-grade enrichment. In return, the US, EU and UNSC will lift some of the sanctions that have targeted Iran's energy and banking industries, crippling its oil economy and freezing its assets.

The challenge is not the spectre of the Iranian "bomb" but the tedious negotiations to overhaul the nuclear programme by imposing constraints and enforcing openness. This is also the realistic approach, as opposed to maximalist demands of shutting down the programme. Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javed Zarif, are not all-powerful. Even as the P5+1 (five permanent members of the UNSC and Germany) study its proposal, Tehran is trying to build a domestic consensus on an issue that scares its neighbours but is a matter of national pride. Instead of expecting a grand bargain, the focus should be on flexibility and expanding the basis for a possible nuclear deal.

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