WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s policy of engaging Tehran received a fillip after talks between Iran and six world powers in Geneva on Thursday produced some tentative deals on its nuclear enrichment program.
In various capitals, there was a wave of “cautious optimism,” a phrase rarely heard in Iran’s protracted nuclear stand-off with the West.
DO GENEVA TALKS MEAN OBAMA’S OUTREACH TO IRAN IS WORKING?
It is too early to say.
Given Iran’s track record in past nuclear talks, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both sounded cautious after the meeting. Obama called it a “constructive beginning”, while Clinton said its success could only be judged on what the Iranians did next.
One test will be whether Iran abides by its agreement in principle to send uranium to Europe for further processing and allow U.N. nuclear inspectors unfettered access to the newly disclosed uranium enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom.
The fact that the two countries were at the same table in their highest-level direct talks for 30 years, could be seen as progress in itself.
It was the most concrete example to date of Obama’s policy of diplomatic engagement with Iran and follows a period of increased tension after Iran’s disputed presidential election in June and a violent crackdown by the authorities on opposition protesters.
Iran had rebuffed Obama’s outreach efforts, which represented a break with his predecessor George W. Bush’s policy of isolating Iran to force it to give up its nuclear enrichment program, which Washington fears could be used to make a bomb.
The administration will likely hold up Thursday’s meeting as a breakthrough of sorts, but past experience has taught that dealing with Iran is complex and it is best to keep their expectations low.
Obama made clear on Thursday that Iran, which insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, has little time left to open all its facilities to international inspection. Washington’s “patience is not unlimited,” he warned.
The United States is readying measures that will make it difficult for Tehran to do business with the outside world if negotiations fail, including sanctions targeting Iran’s gasoline imports and its banking system.
Washington’s two-track strategy of diplomacy and sanctions aims to convince Iran to give up nuclear enrichment. Analysts say that after Geneva, Obama must define what would constitute success and decide how long to pursue diplomacy before deciding on sanctions.
The administration favors negotiations because it knows getting Russia and China, which have United Nations veto power, to agree to tougher measures will be difficult. The third option, military action, is not favored by the Pentagon.
Iran has until now succeeded in dragging out nuclear talks with Germany, Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States, skillfully exploiting differences among them to stave off the immediate threat of sanctions.
If Iran adopts the same tactic now, Obama would be vulnerable to attack from political opponents who have called his outreach to Iran naive.
He would come under increased pressure from the U.S. Congress, which is considering laws targeting Iran’s oil and gas sector, to toughen sanctions, perhaps even forcing him to take unilateral action. That could undermine his efforts to build an international coalition.
Israel did not attend the Geneva talks but may have the biggest potential to play a decisive role.
Israel doubts Obama’s diplomatic strategy will succeed and has been pressing the United States to impose harsher sanctions on Iran, which rejects the existence of the Jewish state.
Washington is worried that Israel may be tempted launch air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, if it feels the Iranians are on the verge of building a nuclear weapon.
Editing by Alan Elsner