Under pressure from Congress and Israel to resist rushing into a hasty deal, the Obama administration reacted cautiously to news from Geneva on Wednesday of progress in the international talks with Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said it's too soon to talk about easing the far-reaching sanctions that have been biting the Islamic republic's economy and oil industry in recent years.
"The onus remains on Iran to come into compliance with its international obligations, and any deal must prove to the international community that Iran's program will be used for exclusively peaceful purposes," Mr. Carney told reporters in Washington.
His remarks came as two days of highly anticipated talks between Iran and six world powers ended on a positive note Wednesday, with the European Union's foreign-policy chief — the top Western negotiator with Iran — calling the talks "the most detailed discussions we've ever had" on the Islamic republic's nuclear program.
Representatives from the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain — the five permanent U.N. Security Council members — plus Germany announced that a second round of talks with Iran will now go forward in the Swiss city on Nov. 7 and 8.
While Washington and others have stopped short of saying a breakthrough is in the works, the overall mood in Geneva is the most optimistic to emerge from Iranian nuclear talks in decades.
"There was much greater detail than ever before in answer to each other's questions," EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton told reporters in Geneva, according to a report by Bloomberg News.
Iranian negotiators made headlines Tuesday by presenting the world powers with a broadly framed proposal to to scale back — but not eliminate — the Islamic republic's existing uranium-enrichment program and allow increased international monitoring in exchange for the lifting of U.S.-led sanctions.
The extent to which the Obama administration is ready to bite on the proposal by easing sanctions remains unclear.
"Iran addressed what they saw as the objective, what should be in a final step, and what they might do as a first step," said a senior administration official, who briefed reporters in Geneva on the condition of anonymity. "Although there remain many differences in each area and in what sanctions relief might be appropriate, specific and candid discussions took place," the official said.
Specific details of the Iranian offer have been closely guarded. News reports from Geneva have said Iran reportedly offered to make reductions in both the levels of uranium enrichment it is conducting, as well as in the number of centrifuges being used for the enrichment — two key demands that the U.S. and its allies have made in previous failed negotiations with the Islamic republic.
While the concern among Western leaders is that Iran's enrichment may be geared toward developing a bomb, Tehran claims its operations are purely for such peaceful means as generating civilian electricity, and that it has a right to engage in a degree of enrichment as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The U.S. position, dating back to the early 2000s, has been that sanctions on Iran could be lifted if and when leaders in Tehran took appropriate confidence-building measures to show that its nuclear program is truly for peaceful purposes only.
Analysts say U.S. and other Western negotiators in Geneva have remained vague this week about what, specifically, those measures must entail because Iran has made significant advancements in its uranium-enrichment capabilities since nuclear talks broke down in 2005.
"They've been vague about exactly what Iran needs to do to merit sanctions relief, and one reason is because Iran's program has been improving," said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington.
According to Mr. Kimball, the key questions now on the table involve precisely how far the Iranians are willing to go in limiting their enrichment; how much international oversight they are willing to allow; and what specific sanctions relief the West is willing to offer in return.
The amount of wiggle room the Obama administration has with regard to sanctions relief may depend on its relationships both with Congress and with Israel.
Heading into this week's negotiations, six Democrats and four Republican lawmakers wrote a letter to President Obama calling for an all-out halt of uranium enrichment activities by Iran. The lawmakers, including Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, also called on the Obama administration to threaten an increase of sanctions if Iran does not move quickly toward positive negotiations.
The letter dovetailed with a stark warning issued this week by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against moving too quickly toward lifting the sanctions.
In a statement Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu's security cabinet asserted that the Iranian leaders have "systematically defied" past U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for an end to uranium enrichment activities. The statement also urged world powers to accept nothing less than a full suspension of such activities before any sanctions are lifted.
At the Arms Control Association, meanwhile, Mr. Kimball said the push by Israel and by some in U.S. Congress for a total halt of uranium enrichment is "unrealistic" and may jeopardize the prospect for a breakthrough in current negotiations with Iran.
"As a matter of national pride," he said, Iranian leaders are "going to insist upon some limited level of safeguarded enrichment."
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