Geneva — American and Iranian negotiators settled into a luxury hotel here for several days of talks designed to hash out the final details of what could be a historic nuclear deal. Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign secretaries are watching the talks closely, ready to fly to Geneva at a moment's notice if an agreement is reached.
U.S. officials say they're cautiously optimistic these talks will pan out. The two sides came exceptionally close to a deal earlier this month, but those negotiations ended with Kerry and his colleagues boarding their planes and flying home without an agreement. This time around, officials from both sides believe that many of the disputes that gummed up the last round of negotiations have been at least partially resolved.
Don't take out the champagne just yet, however. Some significant differences remain, and it's not at all clear that the negotiators will be able to bridge all of them. Below are three key issues worth watching as the talks get underway.
United They Stand. The negotiations are being led by the so-called P5+1 -- a grouping of the United States, England, Russia, France, China, and Germany -- and the success of any deal will depend on whether all of the countries will be willing to sign off on it. The last time around, France refused, effectively vetoing the proposed agreement. Paris felt that the deal didn't do enough to reduce Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium or stop the construction of the plutonium enrichment facility at Arak. The key question now is whether the current talks will produce a deal that can go as far as France wants without demanding concessions that go beyond what Tehran can accept.
Nuclear Rights. It may seem small in the scheme of things, but one of the biggest remaining disagreements between the two sides concerns the question of whether Iran has the "right" to enrich uranium. Tehran has long demanded what would amount to a Western stamp of approval of sorts for its nuclear efforts. The United States has refused to grant it for just as long. Part of the disagreement is practical: Acknowledging that Iran has a right to continue enriching uranium would allow Iran to keep much of its current nuclear infrastructure intact, albeit under strict international supervision. The other aspect is legal: Tehran could use Western acknowledgement of its right to enrich uranium to argue that the United States and its allies have no legal standing for sanctioning its nuclear program. On Wednesday, a senior administration official said the Non-Proliferation Treaty is "silent" on the issue. "It neither confers a right nor denies a right," the official said. "We do not believe it is inherently there." The official expressed optimism that the two sides could find common ground, but the wording issue has stymied previous attempts at a deal.
Tehran's "Rabid Dogs." Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, raised eyebrows Wednesday when he told members of a paramilitary group that Israel was "a rabid dog" and accused the United States of harboring "warmongering" policies. Khamenei also mocked Washington for the recent government shutdown, telling the crowd that "instead of using threats, go and repair your devastated economy so that your government is not shut down for 15 or 16 days." It's easy to listen to those comments and conclude that Khamenei is simply uninterested in a deal, which is a definite possibility. Some administration officials take a different view, however. They say that Khamenei might have been directing his comments at a domestic audience that remains deeply skeptical of U.S. intentions after decades of hostility. The more important aspect of the supreme leader's comments, they argue, were his continued public support of the ongoing nuclear talks. The success of the current negotiations will come down to which interpretation of Khamenei's words is correct.
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