Upon his return to Iran from Geneva, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator was very clear in only one respect. Responding to a question from the Iranian press, he stated that in Geneva there was no discussion of Iran’s suspension of uranium enrichment. Jalili is actually quite correct.
The Geneva talks were not supposed to be about suspension. They were intended to help launch an intermediary step – freezing the Iran's uranium enrichment program at its current level in exchange for the freezing of UN sanctions at the current level in order to engage in a dialogue over how to move to the next stage of actually negotiating over the package of incentives Iran has been offered if Iran suspends its uranium enrichment activities..
Beyond this selective clarity, however, Jalili’s language was an exercise in obfuscation. According to him, “what was discussed in the Geneva talks was merely focused on dialogue about the approaches of the sides regarding the continuation of the path of negotiations and specified structures and time lines in the direction of reaching a comprehensive agreement.”
I do not know whether Jalili has a problem in the use of the Persian language or the problem is in my understanding of the language but I had to read this statement at least 10 times to realize that he is doing his best to say that Iran wants to continue talks with the six countries present at Geneva (including the United States) without telling the Iranian public that in order to do this Iran has to accept the freeze for freeze formula.
So, he states flatly that there was no discussion of suspension in Geneva, which is true. But in the process he gives the impression that the negotiations will continue without Iran taking the step of agreeing to a freeze of its nuclear program at the current level.
Now the interesting question to me is why Jalili has such a hard time giving a straight answer to the question of whether Iran is willing to go for the freeze formula. After all, enriching at the current level, and not beyond, for only six weeks, give or take, is not suspension and should not harm Iran’s nuclear program. It also has potential benefits if the Iranian negotiators are able to pin down the elements of the incentives package offered to Iran more precisely. Again, after all, the major criticism of the incentives package inside Iran has always been that the package is full of immediate demands on Iran and lots of future and non-specified promises by the Europeans and the Americans. In addition, if there is any chance of convincing the United States to accept some sort of enrichment facilities on the Iranian territory (intrusively inspected and/or multinational), it has to come through negotiations that includes the Americans.
One possible answer to this question could be that Jalili is simply an inexperienced diplomat or negotiator. But the more likely answer to his verbal acrobatics (which does not necessarily exclude the first possibility) is that Ahmadinejad’s administration has turned the issue of Iran’s right to enrichment into such a national spectacle that Jalili has to worry about his moves being perceived by his hard-line audience as a retreat, rather than a mere sensible or even shrewd compromise at a time of great opportunity.
It is probably because of this worry that almost all the newspapers, news agencies, and websites close to the government (such as Farsnews, Rajanews, and Kayhan) are so busy trumpeting the Bush Administration’s “retreat” on negotiating with Iran, ironically approvingly quoting Wall Street Journal as a definite source for the fact that such a retreat has actually occurred. This is while there is literally nothing but the straightforward reporting of Jalili’s words in the reformist or centrist media, probably because there has yet again been a Supreme National Security Council directive forbidding any analysis or commentary about what happened at Geneva.
I am further willing to bet that this hard-line audience is also the reason why the non-paper Iran presented in Geneva does not include any written reference to the freeze on the Iranian part; only a freeze on the current level of sanctions! The worry is so overwhelming that it prevented Jalili to state, as Iran’s previous nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani plainly stated, that "the shift in U.S. diplomacy has created a very good opportunity for Iran and we should do our best to make use of it." Instead Jalili said, “We welcome the fact that the atmosphere of talks in Geneva was constructive and forward looking.” And this is the only comprehensible part of an otherwise very long sentence about Iran’s presence in and view of the talks being “strategic and long-term.”
My bet is that Jalili’s hope is that Solana can convince the six countries that a verbal commitment on the part of Tehran about what amount to an effective freeze would be sufficient for Iran’s interlocutors to continue the talks. It is of course for Solana and the other six countries to decide whether to cover for Jalili. I doubt that they will and I certainly hope that they do not. The news that Iran has agreed to a compromise in order to kick start stalled negotiations is something a good number of Iranians would probably be happy to hear about.