GENEVA – A new round of Iran nuclear talks began in fits and starts Wednesday, with the two sides ending a first session just minutes after it began amid warnings from Iran’s supreme leader of “red lines” beyond which his country will not compromise.
Still, both sides indicated a first-step agreement was possible on a deal to roll back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief, despite strong opposition from Israel and unease in both Congress and among Iranian hard-liners.
President Barack Obama appears determined to reach such an agreement, which could be a major step toward reconciliation between the United States and a former ally that turned adversary after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
But America’s longtime allies Israel and Saudi Arabia fear a deal will fall short of ending the Iranian threat and that a resurgent Iran will transform the balance of power in the Middle East.
A senior U.S. official said Wednesday’s brief plenary was only a formality and that bilateral meetings would continue through the evening to try to hammer out the first steps of a deal. She demanded anonymity under U.S. government briefing rules.
However, there was also tough talk, reflecting tension from nearly a decade of negotiations that have begun to make headway only recently.
While voicing support for the talks, Iran’s supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisted there are limits to the concessions Tehran will make. And he blasted Israel as “the rabid dog of the region” – comments rejected by French President Francois Hollande as “unacceptable.”
French spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told reporters in Paris that such statements complicate the talks, but France still hopes for a deal and its position has not changed. At the previous round earlier this month, France said it wanted tough conditions in any preliminary deal with Iran, and those negotiations then ended with both sides speaking of progress but continued differences on a final agreement.
Khamenei gave no further details in a speech to a paramilitary group aimed at both placating hard-liners and showing his backing for the Iranian officials meeting with international negotiators in Geneva. But his mention of Iran’s “nuclear rights” was widely interpreted as a reference to uranium enrichment.
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed ahead with criticism of what he asserts is a deal in the making that will give Iran too much for too little in return.
Netanyahu, in Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin, renewed his demand for a full stop to all Iranian nuclear programs that could be turned from peaceful uses to making weapons.
He said that Israel wants to see a negotiated settlement, but added that it must be “genuine and real.”
“Israel believes that the international community must unequivocally ensure the fulfillment of the U.N. Security Council’s decisions so that uranium enrichment ends, centrifuges are dismantled, enriched material is taken out of Iran and the reactor in Arak is dismantled,” Netanyahu said, referring to Iran’s plutonium reactor under construction.
Putin had no public reaction to Netanyahu’s comments. “We expect that mutually acceptable solutions will be found shortly,” he told reporters.
If the talks produce a deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear efforts, negotiators will pursue a more comprehensive agreement that would ensure that Tehran’s program is solely for civilian purposes.