PARIS | The United States and its biggest European allies are still working out details of how they might punish Iran if talks beginning Thursday on its nuclear program are not successful, the White House and a French official said Wednesday.
U.S. and European strategies have largely converged in a common front to expand economic sanctions if Iran does not open its nuclear program to international inspection and abandon any ambitions to produce nuclear weapons.
But Russian and especially Chinese agreements are less certain and could undercut whatever steps the United States and Europeans might take. There is general agreement on measures to further restrict Iran’s ability to trade with the outside world, said government officials and analysts in Europe and Washington, although the precise nature of new sanctions is still the subject of intense discussions.
“We are all united on the perspective of the end of the year,” said a French Foreign Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “As to the details of what comes then, we are not there yet.”
A senior White House official called the final package “an ongoing project.”
“We have done a tremendous amount of work and have done a lot of consultations around the world, with respect to the pressure track. We’re prepared on a range of areas,” said the official, who spoke to reporters at the White House on the condition that he not be named.
Thursday’s talks in Geneva will be the first comprehensive, publicly acknowledged negotiations between Iran and the United States since the United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980 while it held U.S. diplomats hostage.
In an apparent effort to improve the atmosphere for the talks, Iran has allowed Swiss diplomats who represent U.S. interests in Iran to visit three American hikers detained by Iran near the Iraq border in late July. Iran also has released several political prisoners including a businessman, Bijan Khajepour, who has traveled frequently to the United States, said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Meanwhile, the United States allowed Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to visit Washington on Wednesday for several hours, the first time in a decade that an Iranian official of that level has been permitted outside the New York area. Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley said the Iranians made the request “in the last day or two” and that Mr. Mottaki visited Iran’s interest section in Washington. Mr. Crowley called the visit “an interesting coincidence” but said, “I would not read a lot into this.”
White House senior officials said Mr. Mottaki was “not seeing anybody from the administration.”
Despite the gestures, Thursday’s talks are expected to be tough.
“We need to see practical, tangible steps to build confidence in Iranian intentions,” including willingness to open Iran’s nuclear facilities to thorough international inspection,” a senior U.S. official in Geneva said Wednesday. He said a 2007 proposal for a so-called freeze-for-freeze - under which no new sanctions would be imposed and Iran would not expand its uranium enrichment program for six weeks - “remains the starting point for us for discussions.”
“I think it’s pretty safe to predict that this is going to be an extraordinarily difficult process,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He also stressed that “from the point of view of the United States, [this] cannot be an open-ended process or talks just for the sake of talks. … All of us need to see practical steps and measurable results, and we need to see them starting quickly.”
The White House official said sanctions would not be discussed Thursday in Geneva.
“This is the engagement track tomorrow, not the pressure track,” he said.