Analysis: Iran is winner in nuclear talks, at least for now

IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei is bound for Tehran, Iran, this weekend.
The United States and its partners in the P5+1 — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — can rightfully claim progress in Thursday’s talks with Iran.

(CNN) — The United States and its partners in the P5+1 — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — can rightfully claim progress in Thursday’s talks with Iran. The seven hours worth of talks in Geneva, Switzerland, ended much better than anyone anticipated. Iran pledged to admit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors into its recently disclosed facility in Qom and agreed, in principle, to a proposal under which it ships most of its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium outside the country for further enrichment to power a reactor used for medical research. Of course the devil is in the details. But if these two agreements are actually implemented, it could mark the beginning of bringing Iran’s nuclear program under strict international monitoring and provide important safeguards that could prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. What’s more, Iran agreed to meet again with the group by the end of the month. And if all of that wasn’t enough, U.S. Undersecretary of State Bill Burns had a rare one-on-one meeting with his counterpart, Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili, where they discussed among other things human rights. The 45-minute meeting was described as a “sidebar” and didn’t involve substantial negotiation of the issues, but it was the first genuine indication that Iran is taking President Obama up on his offer of engagement. Yes, the P5+1, and the United States in particular, should be pleased. But the real winner in Thursday’s round of talks is Iran, which has largely neutralized international efforts to impose new sanctions against Tehran. Iran cleverly revealed its not-so-secret nuclear facility at Qom to the IAEA hours before Obama was to speak to the G-20 industrialized nations, where Iran’s nuclear program was featured prominently on the agenda in his meetings with various leaders.

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Earlier in the week, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, having softened from the Obama administration’s efforts to “push the reset button” on its relationship with Iran and its decision to scrap missile defense in Poland and Russia, said he could consider tougher international sanctions if Iran did not comply with international demands. But after Iran’s disclosure, Medvedev suggested that Tehran’s offer to open the site to IAEA inspectors could satisfy Moscow, which in turn would satisfy China, which has been just as reluctant as Russia to impose new sanctions. Iran’s supposed about-face also blunts the threat of Israeli attack, at least for now. Israel has maintained for years that Iran was not being honest about the scope of its nuclear program and has pointed to the Qom facility as confirmation of its suspicions. Now that Iran has disclosed the facility, Israel may be satisfied that world powers will impose tougher sanctions if Iran doesn’t follow through on its promises and stand down on military action. A date for IAEA inspectors to get into the facility has not been set. IAEA Director Mohammed ElBaradei is headed to Tehran this weekend to work out the details. But on Friday, Tehran’s ambassador to Britain, a member of the Iranian delegation at the Geneva talks, suggested that the deal was far from done. More important, Iran has still not addressed the international community’s overarching demand for it to stop enrichment. The talks in Geneva ended without agreement on the “freeze for freeze”: a suspension of further Iranian enrichment for a halt to additional United Nations sanctions. All in all, Iran’s demonstration of flexibility this week gave it a welcome reprieve without really changing the fundamentals of its nuclear program. While calling the talks a “constructive beginning,” Obama said this diplomatic process would not be open-ended. He gave Tehran two weeks to allow international inspectors complete access to its the newly disclosed nuclear facility or face increased international pressure. Obama knows that two-week deadline is an artificial one. Fourteen days from now, Obama won’t retract his offer to engage the Iranian regime if inspectors don’t enter the facility. Neither will the P5 plus 1 take its longstanding offer for better relations with the West off the table. And as for further sanctions — well, the last sanctions resolution on Iran passed last year took eight months through the U.N. Security Council, even in its watered-down form. Two weeks is not a heck of a long time to get a handle on Iranian’s nuclear program, but it’s enough to get an initial glimpse as to whether Iran is coming clean with the international community or simply running down the clock while it continues its nuclear development. If it is the latter, those 14 days will provide Obama’s policy of engaging Iran its first real test.