Iran sets out nuclear offer amid cautiously optimistic mood

AFP-JIJI

Iran on Tuesday laid out an eagerly awaited proposal to break the deadlock in talks with world powers over its nuclear program in a test of the thaw under new President Hassan Rouhani.

An hourlong PowerPoint presentation by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his negotiators was delivered in English for the first time, underlining a new mood in the often-tense nuclear talks, officials said.

Israel has warned the world not to fall for “sweet talk” from Rouhani, but Western negotiators insisted they wouldn’t be naive.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is chairing the talks, said she had “cautious optimism but a real sense of determination.”

No details of the proposal — titled “Closing an Unnecessary Crisis, and Opening a New Horizon” — emerged from the closed-door talks after an initial session of 2½ hours.

On the eve of the two-day meeting, Zarif said the plan contains three steps that could settle the long-running nuclear standoff “within a year,” but he did not elaborate.

Zarif, traveling with his personal doctor as he battles back pain, has said he hopes the talks will sketch out a road map for higher-level negotiations.

He said the initial step could be achieved “within a month, or two, or even less.”

Iran meeting with the European Union-chaired P5+1 group — the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, plus Germany — ends a six-month hiatus over the Islamic republic’s refusal to curb uranium enrichment in exchange for easing punishing international sanctions.

It also marks a revival of talks put on ice in the closing months of the presidency of conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani, who took office in August, has promised transparency on the nuclear programme and engagement to eventually lift the trade embargo that is strangling Iran’s economy by hitting oil exports and access to global banking.

EU spokesman Michael Mann underlined the “very different” atmosphere under Zarif’s team.

“We have come here with a sense of cautious optimism and a great sense of determination because we believe it’s really time now for tangible results,” he told reporters in Geneva.

“There are signals from Tehran that they want to engage in these negotiations, that they want to be more transparent. The proof would be if they made real progress,” he said.

“We are on our side ambitious to move forward quickly. . . . The ball remains in their court,” he added.

A senior U.S. administration official said in Geneva that any easing of sanctions would be “targeted, proportional to what Iran puts on the table.”

“We are quite ready to move. But it depends what they put on the table. . . . We are hopeful, but that has to be tested with concrete, verifiable actions.

“In the past, Iran has taken the negotiated time and just kept moving forward with its nuclear program. We cannot allow that to be the case,” the official warned.

Zarif admitted to difficulties in the negotiations, on hold since a round in April in Kazakhstan under Ahmadinejad’s team.

“The nuclear issue cannot be resolved in one session, as mistrust has been accumulated over years,” he said.

“I am not pessimistic about the talks, but we need to see the good intentions and political will of the other side in action,” he said.

Western powers and Israel suspect Iran is trying to develop an atomic bomb, a claim vehemently denied by Tehran, which insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Iran has already drawn its red lines for the talks, saying it will not accept any demand to suspend uranium enrichment or ship out stockpiles of purified material.

A first meeting between Zarif and his counterparts from the six powers took place last month on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, accompanied by a landmark two-way meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

After meeting Ashton in London on Sunday, Kerry said the window for diplomacy with Iran was “cracking open.”

Shortly before the talks began, Israel — believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear armed state — warned against accepting “cosmetic concessions” that would not impede a quest for atomic weapons.

Kerry underlined Sunday that Washington meant what it said about never allowing room for a nuclear-armed Iran.

“I believe firmly that no deal is better than a bad deal,” he said.