The Middle East Channel

Iran and world powers kick off a new round of Geneva nuclear talks

Iran and world powers began a new round of talks in Geneva Thursday over Tehran's contentious nuclear development program, with both sides expressing cautious optimism. Ahead of the meeting, a U.S. official said the United States is looking to agree on a "first step" deal with Iran, in which Tehran would temporarily halt its nuclear program and reverse a portion of it, in exchange for a modest suspension of sanctions. U.S. officials said many aspects of the deal had already been discussed with Iranian officials and implied the parties could come to an agreement this week. On Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reiterated that Tehran's policy is to "refrain from seeking nuclear weapons," continuing that a deal was within reach. However, there are concerns Iran is advancing a nuclear weapons program. Former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Olli Heinonen said Iran has the expertise and sufficient quantities of enriched uranium to produce a crude nuclear explosive within two to three months, though it would take much longer to reach the capacity for weaponization. The concerns are creating a greater impetus for dialogue between the United States and Iran, which current and former U.S., Middle Eastern, and European officials say well preceded the historic phone call between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. U.S. National Security Council officials reportedly had been holding secret meetings and telephone calls for months in efforts to advance a thaw in U.S. and Iranian relations.

Syria

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been able to verify a previously inaccessible Syrian chemical weapons site, leaving one of the country's 23 declared sites remaining. The site in northern Aleppo province, as declared by Syria "was confirmed as dismantled and long abandoned with the building showing extensive battle damage." According to the inspectors, the findings were based on photographs and footage from "sealed cameras used by Syrian personnel." Syrian officials began talks at the OPCW headquarters in The Haque on Wednesday aiming to finalize a detailed destruction plan by November 15. The talks have come a day after U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power suggested the Syrian government might not have declared its entire chemical weapons program to the OPCW. Meanwhile, Syrian state television and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the Syrian army backed by Hezbollah fighters and other militias overtook Sbeineh, a major rebel enclave south of Damascus, after a year-long siege. The opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) also made gains, seizing parts of a large arms depot in Homs after over two weeks of clashes with government forces.

Headlines

  • Swiss scientists have released a report on findings that "moderately support" a theory that former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat was poisoned with polonium leading to his death in 2004.
  • The Obama administration is holding talks with Yemeni officials on a plan for a detention facility outside Sanaa for terrorism suspects currently held in Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan.
  • Several attacks across Iraq killed 14 people and wounded 30 others Wednesday, with the worst a suicide truck bombing targeting a police headquarters near Baquba.

Arguments and Analysis

'Iran talks: Do we want a deal or a war?' (Trita Parsi, CNN)

"The sanctions regime and the international consensus to isolate Tehran might quickly disintegrate if talks fail and the blame falls on Washington (read Congress). In fact, the Iranians are counting on this.

The more forthcoming, flexible and reasonable they come across on the nuclear issue in their current charm offensive and the more the U.S. Congress puts its hawkishness and dysfunctionality on public display, the easier they can shift the blame for the impasse onto the United States and the more successful they will be in peeling countries off from the sanctions regime.

This is exactly how Obama succeeded in securing this unlikely sanctions program in the first place: His extended hand of friendship in 2009 and Tehran's inability to unclench its fist shifted the blame squarely to the rulers of Iran. As a result, sanctions that the Bush administration did not even dare to dream of became reality only 18 months into Obama's presidency.

The Iranians have now set the stage to return the favor if Congress fails to be serious about a deal."

'Egypt's Transition Roadmap: Main Event or Sideshow?' (Michele Dunne, Atlantic Council)

"Right now Egypt is headed into one more phase of a transition in which exclusion and zero-sum politics have prevailed at each turn:  first the military conspired with the Brotherhood to exclude secularists, then the Brotherhood tried to dominate and ignore all others, and now the military is cooperating with at least some secularists to exclude most Islamists. This latest phase might endure longer than the others, simply because the military is now willing to employ much more coercion, but there is little possibility it will bring stability, economic opportunity, or democracy to the country.

So enough pressing the military to do what it already intends to do, which is to implement its own roadmap.  If the United States intends to exert influence at all -- which Kerry's visit suggests it does -- then use it to press for ending the crackdown and urging the military to hand control of politics back to civilians. Only then can Egyptians develop a consensus on a way forward that will be broad enough to be viable." 

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

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