Iran Talks With West but Battles Over Outreach

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -
Switzerland’s Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter (L) speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Geneva. (AP Photo/Martial Trezzini, Pool)
Switzerland’s Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter (L) speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Geneva. (AP Photo/Martial Trezzini, Pool)

The Iranian foreign minister’s parting words in Geneva carried hopes that the U.S. and other world powers could begin closing the gap with Tehran over its nuclear program. He returns home with perhaps an even tougher challenge in finding common ground.

In a sharp counterpoint to the Western outreach of President Hassan Rouhani’s government, hard-line factions in Iran have amplified their bluster and backlash in messages saying they cannot be ignored in any diplomatic moves with Washington either in the nuclear talks or beyond.

They also hold important sway over the pace and direction of Iran’s nuclear program through the Revolutionary Guard, the single most powerful institution in Iran. Without its clear backing, the West and its allies could grow increasingly skeptical about Rouhani’s ability to deliver on efforts to ease fears that Iran could be moving toward an atomic weapon or a so-called threshold state — without an actual bomb but with all the expertise and material in place.

“Iran’s hard-liners are the not-so-silent partners in everything that Rouhani has set in motion,” said Scott Lucas, an Iranian affairs expert at Britain’s Birmingham University. “The Revolutionary Guard is never a bystander in Iran.”

It’s still unclear whether the Guard would agree to potential demands such as increased U.N. monitoring at nuclear and related sites. So far, however, there have been few smooth patches with Rouhani. His outreach has brought swift criticism from the Guard and its wide network.

Even Iran’s smallest gestures toward the U.S. poke at a nest of complications — deep historical grievances, perceptions of national pride and a culture of “enemy” resistance that runs to the core of groups such as the Revolutionary Guard, which is wary about anything that could chip away at its vast influence.

For Rouhani and his allies, it also means a possibly short leash.

Iran’s top decision-maker, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has allowed Rouhani to reach out to the U.S. The immediate goal is trying to address concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and getting painful economic sanctions rolled back in return.

Two days of talks in Geneva this week between Iran and envoys from six nations — the permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany — ended with rare optimism.

But all noted that the negotiating process could drift well into next year, and it remains unclear whether Iran could offer verifiable concessions needed to end the deadlock.