America’s long showdown with Iran over its nuclear program could begin its endgame tomorrow when a new round of negotiations — the most promising since the West began cracking down on Iran about a decade ago — begins tomorrow in Geneva. Secretary of State John Kerry will lead a U.S. delegation that joins teams from China, Russia, France, Germany and the U.K. (a group shorthanded as the P5+1, because it includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany). They will meet with an Iranian delegation headed by Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.
On the eve of the talks, TIME spoke with Gary Samore, who served until January as the Obama White House’s coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction — making him the Administration’s point man on the Iran nuclear issue. Samore is now president of United Against Nuclear Iran.
Gary, what’s at the crux of these negotiations?
The single most important issue is whether Iran offers to accept limits on its overall enrichment capacity: limits as defined by the number of centrifuges, the type of centrifuges, the number of enrichment locations and the stockpile of enriched material they have on hand.
The goal of these limits is to prevent Iran from enriching large amounts of uranium quickly. If the Iranians had an industrial-scale enrichment facility, with tens of thousands of centrifuge machines enriching low-enriched uranium, they could pretty quickly convert that facility to producing large quantities of weapons-grade uranium. And that is called ‘breakout.’
(MORE: What an Iran Deal Would Look Like)
The U.S. will try to trade sanctions relief for physical limits on the Iranian nuclear program, and the Iranians will try to get sanctions relief for as few limitations as possible
But without offering some kind of limits on capacity, any proposal Iran makes is not going to be taken seriously.
What’s going to happen in Geneva? Put us in the room.
You’ll have a big plenary session with all the delegations around a table. The expectation is that the Iranians will come to this meeting with a new proposal. Everyone will listen, and there will be some questions and discussion.
Then there would normally be a break for lunch and hopefully an opportunity for bilateral meetings. The only way to negotiate is to meet bilaterally — you can’t negotiate with seven delegations sitting around the table.
What will it mean if the Iranians meet with the Americans privately?
That will show they are taking the negotiations seriously.
Since 2009 the Iranians have completely refused to meet with the Americans bilaterally. We have tried over and over again, and they have always refused and said they don’t have authorization. It will be a very important development if Zarif or his delegation is authorized to meet with the head of the American delegation, [Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs] Wendy Sherman.
Are you hopeful we can reach a deal?
I imagine there’s a very intense debate going on in Tehran now between those who think they need to come up with something pretty dramatic and interesting, and the Supreme Leader, who thinks the Americans can’t be trusted and that whatever concessions Iran makes, the U.S. will simply pocket them and demand more.
I think the proposal they put forward in Geneva is going to be pretty modest — it will fall short of what we consider a dramatic breakthrough. But I think it will be enough for us to schedule another meeting. Even if the Iranians were prepared to make big concessions, they wouldn’t show it in the first meeting. That’s just not how you negotiate.
(MORE: A Glimmer of Hope in Iran’s Nuclear Posture, Even Before Rouhani’s Stunner)
Do you have any doubt that Iran wants a nuclear bomb?
There’s some ambiguity about their intention. Almost all governments that are involved in this issue believe that at a minimum they want a nuclear-weapons capacity — the option to build nuclear weapons. Whether they have made a decision to build a nuclear weapon, when they think they can get away with it, that’s a matter of dispute.
My personal position is if they thought they could build nuclear weapons with impunity they would do so, and that what has held them back so far has been fear of an American or Israeli strike.
Israel isn’t a party to the talks, but obviously it’s a crucial actor. What role do the Israelis play?
The U.S. has always kept Israel and other interested countries, including Arab countries, very informed about these talks. That has included consultations before and after on tactics and substance. At the end of the day we have to come up with a deal that is acceptable not only to us but to our partners.
Say we reach a deal in the months ahead. Then what?
Then comes the question of sequence: Who goes first? The normal process for that is a step-by-step, phased approach. There’s so little trust between the two that neither side wants to give away its bargaining chips.
What’s going to be the hardest part of reaching a deal?
There’s a fundamental conflict of national interest between the U.S. and Iran. They want to have a nuclear-weapons capability. We’re not going to be able to persuade them that having a nuclear-weapons option is a bad idea. They’re deeply committed to that and have been for decades. The best we can use is coercive pressure.
We also need to realize that, down the road, the agreement could fall apart — the last one with the Europeans did, when Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment from 2003 to 2005.
So people shouldn’t view any deal as a comprehensive agreement that ends this once and for all. They should view it as a way to buy time, in the hopes that the next Iranian government has a different calculation of their national interest.