U.S. and European officials had sought to lower expectations for the talks, the first since the disastrous meeting in January last year in which Iranian officials refused to discuss their country’s nuclear program. In the 15 months since, Iran has been hit with multiple rounds of sanctions and a European oil embargo set to take effect on July 1.
While diplomats welcomed the chance for continued dialogue with Iran, the prospect of extended negotiations carries political risks for the White House. Israeli and Arab leaders have warned that Iran may use them as a stalling tactic or a means to divide public opinion. Fruitless negotiations could also leave President Obama vulnerable to attacks from Republican opponents who have sought to portray the administration as soft on Iran.
The administration has insisted that there is still time for a diplomatic settlement, warning that a unilateral military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities could trigger a regional war. But current and former U.S. officials acknowledged that pressure from hard-liners on both sides could undercut efforts to reach a compromise.
“The stakes are too high and the risks too great to allow for domestic politics to undermine what will clearly be a challenging set of discussions,” said Joel Rubin, a former State Department official and policy director for the Ploughshares Fund.
Saturday’s talks left unresolved key questions about precise steps Iran may be willing to take to ease Western concerns about its nuclear program. In the past, U.S. officials have floated proposals that would require Iran to halt uranium enrichment at the newly built Fordow plant, which is built beneath a mountain near the ancient city of Qom. Other proposals call for suspending all uranium enrichment until Iran agrees to aggressive inspections and other curbs to guarantee that none of its enriched uranium is used in the future to make nuclear bombs.
Western governments are also urging Iran to admit it had a secret nuclear weapons program in the past and to stop producing a more purified form of enriched uranium that can be quickly converted to weapons-grade fuel. Iran insists that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
The playing down of expectations before the start of the talks was an acknowledgment of the distrust that has defined relations between Iran and Western powers for decades, current and former U.S. officials said.
“Nobody knows exactly how to make a deal on the nuclear issue,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official and a veteran of Middle East negotiations. “But none of the three prospective combatants [Israel, Iran and the United States] wants a regional Armageddon, and that’s why a negotiating process is king and will rule for much of 2012.”