After 34 years dominated by dispute, the US and Iran finally moved towards diplomatic resolution in talks over the nuclear issue. But will it last?

Over the last 48 hours, a funny thing happened in the narrative of US-Iranian relations. Instead of hostile rhetoric, threats of sanctions and big rockets, and scare stories about The Bomb, Western news headlines talked of a “very positive” advance — not only between Tehran and the 5+1 Powers in talks in Geneva, but in direct contacts between Iranian and American officials.

After 34 years dominated by dispute, a “senior US administration official” declared on Wednesday, “The good news, we are getting to a place where one can imagine we could possibly have a process that could lead to an agreement.”

Where did it all go so right — at least for these two days?

An Iranian shift?

Western headlines this morning are likely to speak of an Iranian shift, implying that Tehran has finally seen diplomatic reason.

Don’t be fooled. The change was on the American side.

Even before the election of Hassan Rouhani in June, Tehran had set out its general lines for negotiation: recognize the Islamic Republic’s right to a nuclear program, and lift sanctions. In return, Iran would suspend enrichment of uranium to 20%. If other countries guaranteed supply of the 20% stock, then Tehran would permanently restrict its enrichment of uranium to 5%.

Issues over timing

From mid-2012 to now, the squabbling was over the timing of the steps. The US insisted that Iran move first with a program of “Stop, Shut, and Ship” — halting its 20% enrichment and sending all stock of 20%-enriched uranium abroad — before any meaningful decision could be taken regarding Tehran’s rights and the easing of sanctions.

However, Tehran was unwilling to concede all its bargaining chips up front.

And there were the further, far-from-insignificant problems on both sides. The Obama Administration seemed unwilling to risk a fight with those in Congress who wanted only to impose more sanctions on Iran. The Iranian rhetoric at home was often hostile, and the tone at the negotiating table — embodied in the hard-line figure of Saeed Jalili — was cold.

The problem was not necessarily one of what was being said, but how it was being said.

A change of tone

The advent of the Rouhani Government in June did not change the substance of Iran’s position as much as the tone in which that position was expressed. The President’s mantra of “engagement” was supported by the appointment of a new Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, well-respected across the diplomatic community and skilled at the easy talk between hard discussions.

Then there was the bureaucratic victory in Tehran. Rouhani won the backing of the Supreme Leader in early September for a dedicated attempt at a settlement, including bilateral talks with the Americans.

The key change, missed by many casual observers, was the move of the nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council — from where Jalili had led negotiations until his failed Presidential campaign — to Zarif’s Foreign Ministry.

The role of the Americans

Still, this was far from enough to bring this week’s advance.

The onus lay with the Americans.

All the way to the Iranian Presidential election, the Obama Administration — from agreement or political intimidation — had chased Congress in the imposition of more and more sanctions. On four occasions in less than two weeks up to early June, the President and Treasury issued orders for further restrictions.

Rouhani’s victory, combined with a summer lull in Washington and the diversion of Congress to political fights like the Government shutdown, brought a moratorium on further sanctions.

But what prompted the US shift?

What is still unknown is how the faction within the Obama Administration which has long wanted genuine talks, rather than one-way concessions, prevailed.

Perhaps it was the catalyst of Syria, with the US stepping away from military intervention and thus avoiding a step-up of conflict with Tehran. Perhaps it was a sense that more and more sanctions were not going to bring down the Islamic Republic and thus were only offering permanent conflict. Perhaps it was pressure from Britain and Germany, increasingly concerned about the failure to ease tensions. Perhaps it was advance in quiet, back-channel talks between US and Iranian representatives.

Up to Tuesday, the Americans were still playing coy. They would not put any proposals of their own on their table, and they were waiting for Iran to show goodwill in their opening remarks.

But as soon as Foreign Minister Zarif had concluded his PowerPoint presentation, the US representatives were briefing journalists that this was a basis for genuine discussion. By the afternoon, they were signalling that this discussion had moved to technical points — a rate of advance never seen before in negotiations. And by the evening, Iranian lead negotiator Abbas Araqchi was talking with US counterpart Wendy Sherman.

“Still a long way to go”

As Wendy Sherman, the lead US negotiator, told the press on Wednesday afternoon, “There is still a long, long way to go.” Technical talks in coming days and the next high-level meeting in Geneva on November 7-8 will only advance the possibility of resolution — it will take months to establish the details.

However, for the first time since 2010, the Obama Administration has chosen the path of genuine negotiation rather than confrontation. For the first time in those three years, it is defying Congressional critics.

Will it continue to do so once the anti-agreement legislators rally their forces to declare that Rouhani is a “sheep in wolf’s clothing”, that Tehran is only being deceptive on the way to The Bomb?