Iran huddles with EU representative to begin ironing out nuclear talks details

Substantive talks are underway about Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva, but only between EU/UN co-chair Catherine Ashton and Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, reportedly at Iran’s insistence. Gwen Ifill talks to Margaret Warner, reporting from Geneva, about urgent pressures and outstanding points of contention.

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    Hopes to reach an interim deal over Iran's nuclear program were tempered by tough words and few positive ones in Geneva today.

    Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner is covering the talks for us.

    I spoke with her a short time ago.

    Margaret, good to see you.

    Everybody around the table in Geneva seems to be talking about some version of trust. What happened today?


    What happened today, Gwen, is, one, we have got a news blackout. Two, I would say two new dynamics emerged.

    The two sides are now definitely talking about the substance. That is, they have a text in front of them, a draft, and they're trying to iron out the differences. But the new dynamic is, the only substantive talks taking place are between the Iranian foreign minister, Zarif, and the E.U./U.N. co-chairman of these talks, Catherine Ashton.

    And I was told by the Iranians that that was at Iran's insistence. They don't want a situation where they agree to something, they think they have agreed to something, and then some other foreign minister flies in, like the way the French did last time, and raises objections.

    And a European source confirmed to me tonight that that was the case. That was Iran's insistence.


    So it's fair to say that Secretary Kerry is not there. Do we know if he's coming?


    No. And early in the day, there was a lot of buzz about — and you certainly saw a lot of security guys around appearing to prepare for all kinds of foreign ministers to fly in.

    But, tonight, when — the sense very much is this could go into the weekend. The talks have already ended. They ended around 9:00 between Ashton and Zarif. Ashton now has to go back and consult with these — her six countries, including the U.S.


    Now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in Washington that he is going to put off any further Senate action on whether sanctions should be increased against Iran until after the holiday, after Thanksgiving.

    Was that the kind of deal, the delay that Kerry was looking?


    Well, it was going into these talks, but it still wasn't a reassuring signal. And here's why.

    What Harry Reid, who has successfully bottled up any attempt to pass new sanctions through parliamentary maneuvers, was saying today is, come December 9, when we're back, all bets are off, and, in fact, I'm going to help move — we're going to move a bill, a bipartisan — a new sanctions bill through the Senate.

    The House has already passed one. The Iranians have said if that happens as far as they have concerned — during negotiations, if that happens, then negotiations are really — they haven't said over, but pretty impossible, because Rouhani, the president, the new president, is going to be under such pressure from the supreme leader and hard-liners at home.

    And so this — you know, you can say, well, it buys them two weeks, but it adds a sense of urgency to these talks. An Iranian told me tonight that Zarif, too, is under pressure at home. And he pointed to this TV monitor that showed Zarif and Ashton walking in and sitting down in a meeting. And he said, just look at his body language. And it's true. I have seen Zarif in person several times.

    And he definitely is not as warm and as expansive just in his attitudes here as he was before. He's under a lot of pressure to produce. And this Iranian, who is very much, very much involved with the delegation, said, if this — if they don't get a deal this time, it's not even clear that Zarif will be allowed to return.

    And, of course, as we discussed last night, or Judy and I did, Secretary Kerry and President Obama are under a lot of pressure in the U.S. also.


    So, is there any way of knowing, on a day like today, when so much happened behind closed doors, whether we're closer or farther away?


    Well, I would say we're closer than yesterday, when they didn't even talk about substance.

    What's clear now is the "process" they were talking about — quote, unquote — had to do with this insistence by the Iranians they were only going to deal with one person. So they're probably closer.They're still talking, and they're talking on substance. But there are several outstanding issues, as we know, this so-called — Iranians' insistence on the right to enrich.

    There is some indication from both the U.S. and Iranians they have figured out a way to finesse it, which is, the U.S. will have one understanding and the Iranians will have another, and the Iranians have said — Zarif said, well, we don't really need the world to recognize our right to enrich, which is a softening of their position.

    But there are a lot of others, some of the ones that the French were very hard-line on. And the real issue is, now that the Iranians have come back with their counterproposals on certain parts of the consensus text, can the six foreign ministers, the U.S. through the French, stick together? And the French foreign minister had some tough words today when asked if there was a deal possible.

    He said, well, it's all a question of firmness, and right now the Iranians can't accept what the six — what the six want.

    Well, the six are going to have to make some further decisions here, and that's really the outstanding question.


    Well, at least the conversations are still continuing.

    We are glad you are there watching them, Margaret Warner, for us in Geneva.


    Thanks, Gwen.