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Hopes grow of a confidence-building deal on Iranian nuclear programme
The signals emanating from Tehran in recent days suggest that the upbeat assessment that came out of the Istanbul talks last month was not a flash in the pan.
My understanding is that Ali Bagheri, the deputy Iranian negotiator, got in touch with his opposite number at the EU, Helga Schmid, the day after the Istanbul talks to ensure that the ball kept rolling. In the run-up to the next round of talks in Baghdad next Wednesday, the two have met at an undisclosed location to draw up an agenda.
The talks have been substantive and businesslike. At no point did Bagheri exclude any items from the proposed agenda, and he accepted that the Baghdad talks will involve sensitive aspects of the Iranian nuclear programme, in particular its enrichment of uranium, on condition it also embraced Iran's concerns, principally sanctions. Neither Schmid nor Bagheri has a mandate to cut any deals, but nevertheless, the outline of a possible 'confidence-building package' has emerged from their discussions.
That package would build on the uranium fuel swap deal that Iran came close to agreeing with the international community in 2009, by which it would export some of its enriched uranium stockpile in return for fabricated fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).
The TRR currently uses uranium enriched to 20%, and any new deal would almost certainly involve Tehran accepting limits on its production and stockpile of 20% uranium, seen as a particular proliferation risk by the international community. The six-nation negotiating group (US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China) that Schmid and her EU boss, Catherine Ashton represent, would also help with technical assistance on nuclear safety, a particular important issue in the [Persian] Gulf now that the Bushehr power reactor on the Iranian coast, is operational.
Furthermore, European sanctions due to take effect at the beginning of July, could be pushed back. The UK is already reported to be pushing for a six-month delay in sanctions on oil tanker insurance, and the implementation of the broader EU oil embargo could also be postponed.
The barometer for success in Baghdad is not necessarily a sign deal along such lines, but a framework which would be handed over to expert teams on both sides to flesh out after next Wednesday's meeting. If that benchmark was met, the adhoc nature of the discussions could be institutionalised into a process, with regular meetings - probability alternating between venues like Geneva and Istanbul. There is no appetite on the six-nation side to repeat the Baghdad experience. By all accounts, the logistical challenges of holding the May 23 meeting there have been time-consuming and frustrating.
There are no guarantees on how fast the negotiations would proceed, but there are a number of important factors in favour of their continuation. All the parties to the talks have a vested interest in spinning them out, with the goal of ensuring that Israel does not launch a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites, at least not until the US presidential elections in November.
The most impatient participant in the Istanbul talks, the Sarkozy presidency in Paris, is no longer on the scene. The Hollande administration is much closer to the US and British positions, willing to accept an extended process which could end up with the international community's acceptance of limited, and strictly monitored, Iranian uranium enrichment.
Meanwhile, the pressure on Tehran to come to an arrangement with the international community has continued to grow. Iran's exclusion from the SWIFT electronic bank transaction system has hurt the economy badly. Furthermore, sources familiar with the talks are struck by how deeply the crisis in Syria, Iran's most important regional ally, is affecting confidence in Tehran, as is the unexpected cohesion of the six-nation negotiating group.
The Iranian delegation to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna this week also demonstrated that it was keen to keep talks going over inspectors' access to sensitive sites, like the military base at Parchin. Iranian and IAEA officials will reconvene next Monday, two days ahead of the Baghdad meeting on the broader nuclear programme.
There are now two active negotiating tracks with Iran, after a year without any progress. The two tracks are closely related. As David Albright (of the Institute for Science and International Security) and the former IAEA chief inspector, Olli Heinonen, argue in a recent paper, one way of securing acceptance of its nuclear programme would be for Iran to be more forthcoming with information on its past nuclear research.
Western officials caution that the momentum could easily be stifled by internal ructions in Tehran or developments in Syria or elsewhere in the region. But they also said that they are now clearly dealing with a far more nuanced, cautious and subtle Iranian stance than the rejectionist position of only a few months ago.