GENEVA -- Iran and a group of six world powers said Wednesday that they had engaged in "substantive" and "forward-looking" discussions on the disputed Iranian nuclear program, and that they would meet again in early November.
The account of the two days of talks in Geneva came in a rare joint statement from Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, who is the lead negotiator with Iran.
"I've been doing this now for about two years, and I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before," said a senior Obama administration official. "There is more work, much more work to do," added the official, who declined to be identified under the diplomatic protocol for briefing reporters. "This is a beginning. Beginnings are rarely groundbreaking because you are putting pieces on the table."
Representatives from the two sides are to meet again in Geneva for talks Nov. 7 and 8. Nuclear and sanctions experts from the two sides are to meet before then.
The meeting was the first between Iran and the six powers since new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office in August and vowed to resolve long-standing concerns about the country's nuclear program, which Tehran says is peaceful but which many nations suspect is a guise for developing the ability to make weapons.
For all the talk of beginning a new phase in Iran's relationship with the West, as Mr. Zarif put it in a Geneva news conference, neither side announced any diplomatic breakthroughs that would facilitate a comprehensive agreement or even short-term measures to build trust between the two sides.
In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee appearance two weeks ago, Wendy Sherman, the State Department official who led the U.S. delegation to Geneva, sought to head off a congressional move to impose tougher economic sanctions on Iran by vowing to seek a "freeze" of the country's nuclear program, so the Iranians could not use the negotiations as a cover to make further advances.
But Mr. Zarif provided no indication Wednesday that Iran had agreed to suspend any nuclear activities during the talks with what are known as the P5+1 countries: the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- and Germany. The senior Obama administration official declined to discuss the issue.
As the two sides look toward the next round of talks, an array of thorny issues remain. Iran has insisted that the West acknowledge its "right" to enrich uranium as part of a negotiated compromise that put limits on its nuclear program, a step the U.S. side did not publicly take.
Iran's willingness to allow intrusive inspections is also unclear. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi suggested that Tehran would eventually accept a verification protocol that allowed inspectors access to any site where they thought proscribed activity was occurring. But Mr. Zarif suggested such a protocol ran counter to Iranian law.
Another major issue for the next round is how fast to ease economic sanctions that have battered the Iranian economy. Mr. Zarif emphasized that he hoped the West would take a "balanced" approach, an apparent allusion to Iranian demands for a quick easing of tough sanctions. In contrast, U.S. officials have said they want to maintain major sanctions until all of the top U.S. demands are met.
Striking a balance between Iran's demand for relief and the U.S. desire to constrain the Iranian program will not be easy. Given advances in Iran's nuclear program, some experts say, it is no longer sufficient for Iran to agree to a moratorium on enrichment of uranium to 20 percent for some sanctions to be eased -- a step Iran's Fars News Agency reported Tehran was willing to take for six months. Rather, they say, limitations should also be imposed on the number of centrifuge machines Iran can possess, and it should stop work on a plant that would produce plutonium, which also can be used in a weapon.
"I do think that there is some convergence this round on the idea of having near-term, interim measures in place while negotiations go forward on the details of a comprehensive deal," said Brookings Institution senior fellow Robert Einhorn, who served at the State Department as a senior adviser on proliferation issues. "A key challenge will be to reach agreement on an interim measure that balances the P5+1 desire to halt advances in Iran's nuclear program with Iran's desire for early sanctions relief."
Despite the many obstacles, U.S. officials highlighted the positive tone at the Geneva meeting, saying the U.S. team had offered friendly advice to Mr. Zarif about how to deal with the back pain that plagued him this week.
First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM