GENEVA – The United States and Iran tentatively stepped back from looming confrontation on Thursday, reaching an agreement with other major powers that would greatly reduce Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium and reset the diplomatic clock for a solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The outcome, which President Barack Obama in Washington called a “constructive beginning,” came after more than seven hours of talks in an 18th-century villa on the outskirts of Geneva that included the highest-level bilateral meeting between the two countries since relations were severed three decades ago after the Iranian revolution.
But the difficulties ahead were illustrated when the chief Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, held a triumphant news conference at which he denounced “media terrorism,” insisted that Iran has always fully met its international commitments, and refused even to acknowledge a question from an Israeli reporter.
The sudden show of cooperation by Tehran reduces for now the threat of additional sanctions, which has been made repeatedly by the United States and others over the past week following the revelation of a secret Iranian nuclear facility. The United States will need to keep the pressure on Iran to avoid being dragged into a process without end.
Under the tentative deal, Iran would give up most of its enriched uranium to Russia for it to be converted into material for a medical research reactor in Tehran. Iran also agreed to let international inspectors visit the newly disclosed uranium-enrichment facility in Qom within two weeks, and then to attend another meeting with negotiators from the major powers by the end of the month.
The series of agreements struck at the meeting was in itself unusual because, in the past, the Iranian negotiators have said they would get back with an answer – and then fail to do so.
The outcome of the talks was immediately criticized by former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who as a Bush administration official balked at Bush’s efforts to entice Iran into negotiations.
“They’ve now got the United States ensnared in negotiations,” he said. “This is like the movie ‘Groundhog Day.’ ”
But another Bush-era official, former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, said that even if talks fail, Obama will have demonstrated that he tried hard to make diplomacy work – and will win greater support for sanctions.
Despite the drama of sudden movement on an issue that has been in stalemate for seven years, all sides agreed that they are months, even years, from a resolution. The ultimate U.S. goal is suspension of Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities, and Iran insists that it will never take that step.
“This is only a start, and we shall need to see progress through some of the practical steps we have discussed today,” said European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who headed the delegation of six nations meeting with Iran. He said he hoped for “rapid and intense” negotiations to follow.
U.S. officials have asserted that the revelation of the Qom facility had diplomatically isolated Iran, leaving it little choice but to cooperate or face new sanctions. Diplomats said the term “sanctions” was never uttered during the lengthy day, though oblique reference was made to a statement issued by foreign ministers of the group last week. That statement raised the possibility of more sanctions if no negotiating track was soon established.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki – who was given a rare visa by the Obama administration to visit Washington on Wednesday – told reporters in New York that Iran is not building any other nuclear facilities, saying the “only case under construction is Qom.” He said that the Geneva talks took place in a “constructive” atmosphere and that Iran is committed to continuing negotiations with the six powers, including the possibility of a future presidential summit. But he also made it clear that Iran would not yield to pressure to suspend its enrichment of uranium.