Catherine Ashton, lead negotiator for the 5+1 Powers, and Iranian counterpart Saeed Jalili
1. MORE HIGH-LEVEL TALKS ARE SCHEDULED FOR APRIL
Whatever the questions that follow in the rest of this analysis, whatever the cautions, this is the "positive" development that Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili highlighted and that Western media are emphasising.
I did not expect the 5+1 Powers and Iran to schedule another round of discussions before Tehran's Presidential elections in June. I did not expect enough of a shift by the US and European countries in their demands --- or, alternatively, unilateral concessions by Iran --- to make these more than "holding" talks to stave off consideration of a military option against the Islamic Republic.
To my surprise, there was enough movement to justify not only investment in technical talks in Istanbul on 17-18 March but also the declaration of a high-level gathering on 5 April.
2. THE US MODIFIES ITS "STOP, SHIP, AND SHUT" DEMAND
So what happened to bring this progress? It was US "shift" rather than Iranian "concession".
The Americans and European partners, since last June's stalemate in high-level negotiations, have been insisting on a "stop" to production of 20% uranium, a "ship" of all existing 20% stock outside Iran, and a "shut" of the Fordoo enrichment plant.
The 5+1 Powers made two significant alterations to this in a presentation by their lead negotiator, Catherine Ashton, on Tuesday. "Stop" remains but some 20% uranium can be kept by Tehran for civilian use, and the Fordoo plant can remain, although it will suspend 20% enrichment.
I had heard in January, amid back-channel talks in London and elsewhere, that some US officials were ready to drop the "shut" demand, but that was still some ways from actually backing away --- and Washington did not give open signals that the shift was on the table before Tuesday.
So this is far from a token move --- and thus one for Tehran to see value in more talks sooner rather than later --- but....
3. WHAT ABOUT THE "RIGHT TO ENRICH"? AND WHAT ABOUT SANCTIONS?
Because of its enthusiasm over Iranian negotiator Jalili's press conference and the "positive" label, Western media missed the other, more cautious portions of his statement.
In particular, Jalili was firm on two points: Iran will insist that its right to enrich uranium to some level --- unspecified, but probably 5% --- be acknowledged. And it will demand clarity on which sanctions are coming off the table, as it moves away from 20% enrichment.
The Europeans might be ready to openly acknowledge the right to enrich, but I sense that US officials believe the step now is giving away too much, too soon without reciprocal steps from Tehran --- not only the halt to 20% enrichment, but also rigourous measures for inspection and supervision of a 5% process.
The sanctions issue is even murkier. US officials last week flagged up last week that they would withdraw the ban on transfer of gold and precious metals to Iran, but Tehran immediately signalled that the move --- which only withdrew sanctions that had been imposed on 6 February --- was derisory.
So yesterday American officials briefed that someone more over "sanctions relief" had been tabled, although they did not say what those measures were. Indeed, the officials were vocal that sanctions relief did not include a pull-back of the restrictions on Iran's oil and financial sectors, including last July's sweeping European Union measures which have seriously affected Tehran's oil exports and revenues.
I think Iran will insist, at a minimum, that there is some roll-back of those EU restrictions --- American sanctions are harder to withdraw because of the hawkish eyes of the US Congress --- and an offer to review UN sanctions from 2010.
4. "STEP-BY-STEP" TIMING IS CRITICAL...
One of the features of the Iranian approach since last year's high-level talks resumed has been the promotion of the "step-by-step" process, in which each move by Tehran away from 20% enrichment is matched by a serious move back from sanctions. The US and Europeans --- at least among their top officials --- had resisted that approach, preferring the "grand" call for Stop, Ship, and Shut.
At Kazakhstan, the 5+1 Powers finally gave an inital embrace to step-by-step. What remains to be seen is whether the technical talks in March can flesh out the opening, reciprocal measurges --- last summer, the Iranians put forth a nine-stage plan --- and give enough of a platform for something more than rhetoric at the high-level encounter on 5 April.
5. AND SO IS "NO CONCESSIONS" FROM EITHER SIDE
Yesterday I said, "One person's 'concession' is another's 'breakthrough'." Today I think that is more than a flippant statement.
The magic trick at each step-by-step moment is that both the 5+1 Powers, especially Washington and the European 3, and the Islamic Republic can dress up their concessions as "progress" which points to their wisdom and strength.
On Wednesday, for example, the US and Europeans --- albeit from a position where they were close to calling for Iranian surrender --- made concessions. That word will not be used, however; instead, the line will be that this is an offer recognising the wisdom, but also generosity, of the 5+1 line on enrichment.
Reaction in the Iranian press, if not from top officials, immediately risked sabotage of that step. Outlets like Fars and Mashregh crowed that the US had retreated because of the Islamic Republic's strength and "correct" position. Thus, the situation for progress --- "win-win" --- was already being converted into the "win-lose" formula for deadlock.
The converse is true, of course. If and when Iran announces a move towards suspension of 20% enrichment, Western officials must ensure they do not proclaim victory in diplomatic battle, especially one due to the punishment of sanctions.
6. THE IRANIAN REGIME IS STILL DIVIDED
The other significant oversight yesterday was the failure --- because most journalists do not look at Iranian press, especially the press in Farsi rather than English --- to recognise that not everyone in Tehran was happy with the "positive" developments.
Indeed, up to Jalili's press conference, the prevalent line was that the West had put "nothing new" on the table, standing on the proposals from last June that had stalemated the high-level talks.
Part of this is probably due to internal politics. President Ahmadinejad is not happy he has been sidelined, so the sites that back him --- notably State news agency IRNA --- led the "No News" brigade. However, other outlets such as Iranian Students News Agency were also negative.
Significantly, those outlets are silent this morning. So while the Foreign Ministry is clearly happy with the talks, and Jalili is cautiously declaring an advance, key players like the Supreme Leader may still be playing wait-and-see --- even if that "wait-and-see" extended to the agreement for more meetings in the next five weeks.
7. WHAT NEXT?
So are these just "holding" talks --- as I thought up to yesterday --- or the opening steps on the path to an agreement?
See Points 1-6.