A Russian Stars in Geneva

Much was made of the meeting between U.S. diplomat Bill Burns and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in Geneva on Thursday. The 45-minute one-on-one was a breakthrough for the Obama administration, which has been trying to “engage” with Tehran for nine months. But perhaps the bigger star of the nuclear talks was Sergei Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister who has not been a big player until now, according to a European participant.

Ryabkov was “very forceful, very articulate, and very persuasive” in pushing the Iranians to make concessions, said this official, who would describe the details of the talks only on condition of anonymity. The Russians, who in the past have been at best reluctant to press Tehran, came into the talks with a distinctly more cooperative approach since President Dmitry Medvedev’s meeting in late September with Barack Obama. At the time Medvedev said, “We believe we need to help Iran to take a right decision,'' adding that ''in some cases, sanctions are inevitable.'' That followed the U.S. president’s unilateral decision to shift his approach to missile defense in Eastern Europe to a stance considered much less threatening by Moscow. Jalili also had a separate session with only Ryabkov and the Chinese delegate in the room.

Still, participants in the talks were very cautious about any reported progress. The biggest “concession” out of the talks—Iran’s general commitment to send a substantial portion of its uranium to Russia to be enriched—was actually Tehran’s idea to begin with, and predated the meeting, said the European official.