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All eyes Hassan Rouhani
All eyes Hassan Rouhani
Serge Michel and Yves-Michel Riols

GENEVA — The resumption of talks this week on Iran’s nuclear program will provide a clear opportunity to verify Hassan Rouhani’s true intentions.

During his charm offensive at the United Nations General Assembly at the end of September, the new Iranian President, a moderate religious figure, surprised many by meeting with French President François Hollande, and with an unprecedented telephone conversation with Barack Obama. There were also his rapid-fire series of friendly comments on Twitter.

In Geneva, where talks continue through Wednesday, the Security Council’s five permanent members — the United States, France, Russia, China and the United Kingdom — and Germany will meet up with an Iranian delegation led by a close relative of the President, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator.

What is certain is that both the Americans and the Iranians are very eager to turn a corner. “It’s the first time in 35 years that our schedules are aligned!” an Iranian source familiar with the case says. “They have never matched because of elections or mandates ending in Washington or Tehran. Now, both sides have a six-month window of opportunity."

For Rouhani, those six months refer to the time remaining before, if he gets nothing, the ultra-conservatives make a comeback, says the Iranian source. "For Obama, that's the time he has left before the countdown to his succession starts, during which lobbies, particularly the American Jewish lobby, will have a strong influence.”

The French, on the other hand, do not feel the same urgency. “We are told that we should answer Tehran’s gestures of good will, but in response to what?” a foreign ministry official asked. “A phone call between Rouhani and Obama is not enough.”

France’s position is a major concern for Tehran. “The blockage could well come from Paris,” the Iranian source adds. “What French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is saying today is closer to what Netanyahu says than Obama.”

The Iranians appear to have already laid out a clear proposal: setting an upper limit to their program, which they have always said has purely civilian objectives, whereas the West is convinced of its military dimension; and also by ensuring much greater access to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, notably by ratifying its additional protocol that authorizes more intrusive inspections.

“Mohammad Javad Zarif explained it in New York and it was well received,” says the Iranian source. “In Geneva, they will talk about details: How big will the Iranian program be once it has reached its limit?”

After Kazak capital

Once again, Paris has a different take on it, despite “daily” contacts between negotiators since New York. “Zarif tells us he wants to talk about the uranium enrichment level and the number of nuclear plants. We tell him: We put out a proposal in Almaty, it is yours to respond to”, a French diplomatic source says — referring to the last meeting between the 5+1 and Iran, in the former Kazak capital, in April 2013.

Iran was asked to provide confidence-building measures in order to restart negotiations. Broadly speaking, the proposal includes suspending the 20% uranium enrichment, removing the already enriched stock from Iranian territory, opening all the nuclear plants to IAEA inspectors and deactivating the Fordow military complex, near Qom.

In other words, for France, no concession on the economic and financial sanctions imposed on Iran without the strict implementation by Tehran of the Security Council’s six resolutions. They all demand the suspension (but not the ban) of the Iranian uranium enrichment program.

Foreign Minister Fabius reiterated another French concern: the continuation of the Arak power plant construction, whose heavy water reactor produces plutonium — the other fissile material, with uranium, from which a nuclear bomb can be built.

“If this reactor reaches its goal, the nature of the discussion with Iran will change completely,” says Fabius.

The Iranians, nevertheless, remain optimistic. They claim to be coming to Geneva with a “new proposal” in order to put the previous cycle — led by the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s team until Almaty — behind them, once and for all.

They hope for a “major breakthrough” if the West is “reasonable”, that is to say if they “talk about everything except the dismantling” of the Iranian nuclear program.

A French diplomat implicitly approves: “We can’t not negotiate indefinitely,” he admits.

Rouhani's fate

The fundamental question remains the same. Should Iran be allowed to enrich — or have already enriched — uranium? “Whether you like it or not, this right is established in the IAEA nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) that Iran signed,” the Iranian source says. “And if the West wants to change the rules, may it be reminded of the 2003 negotiations. Ten years ago, Europe refused 168 centrifuges on a pilot site. Today, we have more than 15,000. What do we do if no agreement is reached: Do we keep on going and we meet again in ten years?”

The West claims Iran cannot afford to continue this way because the country is on its knees, held back by sanctions. “Rouhani was elected so that he could lift the sanctions; without them, the Iranians wouldn’t be demanding so many negotiations,” a French diplomatic source says.

Iran retorts by saying that their economy benefits both from unexpected resources and great agility to develop under embargo. “Those who suffer,” another Iranian source says, “are the Westernized middle classes. If the West doesn’t reduce its sanctions, it will run the risk of alienating its best allies in Iran.”

And the latest Iranian argument? Normalized relations with the Islamic Republic would offer ties with one of the only stable countries in a region — which includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria... — that has been weakened by American invasions and a rise of radical Islam.

This is an argument that François Nicoullaud, the former French ambassador in Iran, understands. He met the new president Rouhani when he took part in the 2003 negotiations; and for him, the West cannot afford to weaken such a quality representative.

“If there are no tangible results, it will be more challenging for him,” he says. “Lifting a part of the restrictions on banking activities would be a breath of fresh air for the Iranian society. The West is holding Rouhani's fate in its hands.”

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