Ahead of new Iran nuclear talks, six powers debate updating package

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Diplomats, stressing no date or location has yet been set, tentatively expect six world powers to hold a new round of nuclear talks with Iran in January.

Part of the hold-up is jammed-up calendars—NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels this week, several dozen countries’ top diplomats are due to meet in Morocco on Syria next week (December 12); the IAEA is due to visit Iran next week (December 13).

But a larger reason for the delay and current sense of uncertainty on when nuclear talks will resume is that the six powers that make up the so-called “P5+1” have still not agreed amongst themselves whether and how to refresh the package presented to Iran at the next meeting, diplomats speaking not for attribution told Al-Monitor in interviews in recent days.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alluded to intense consultations on the matter last week.

“We are deeply engaged in consultations right now with our P-5+1 colleagues, looking to put together a presentation for the Iranians at the next meeting that does make it clear we’re running out of time, we’ve got to get serious, here are issues we are willing to discuss with you, but we expect reciprocity,” Clinton said at the Saban Forum of US and Israeli diplomats and Middle East experts last week (November 30th).

Britain’s political director Mark Sedwill and some of his team were in Washington last week for consultations with their American counterparts about that and other matters.

Some diplomatic sources thought that the United States and EU3—the UK, France and Germany–were expecting to reach consensus on the matter among themselves by the end of last week, but there were signs that the issue was still being discussed among the six as of Tuesday.

Clinton repeatedly stressed that the United States believes a bilateral conversation between the Americans and Iranians could help advance prospects for a nuclear deal.

“We have, from the very beginning, made it clear to the Iranians we are open to a bilateral discussion,” Clinton, speaking to the same Saban Forum, continued. “So far there has not yet been any meeting of the minds on that. But we remain open. … But we understand that it may take pushing through that obstacle to really get them fully responsive to whatever the P-5+1 offer might be.”

Al-Monitor has previously reported that the Americans were inclined to urge expanding the offer to “more for more”—while the Europeans had not reached consensus on that as of the meeting of P5+1 political directors held in Brussels on November 21st.

The “more for more” offer, as one US source explained it to Al-Monitor last month, would envision updating the “stop, ship, and shut” offer regarding 20% uranium enrichment to get more verifiable limits on the rest of Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for greater international concessions, including some form of sanctions relief.

“’Refreshing the package’ is the language being used,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor in an interview last week (November 3oth). “Consultations are continuing on how to refresh it.”

“But I am not impressed with” the diplomatic preparations to date, Clawson said. “The conversations are extremely timid.” The argument that there are only a “few windows” before Christmas to hold a meeting struck him as implausible, he said.

However, some diplomatic sources suggested international negotiators may be hoping to use the delay and distractions of the season to hold a couple quiet, technical meetings with the Iranians before the next round of high-level political talks. Such technical talks, held with minimal publicity, could be a way to try to narrow differences ahead of getting to the political directors’ meetings with Iran, where little progress to date has been made.

American and Iranian nuclear experts had “several” conversations at P5+1 “technical” meetings with Iran held in Istanbul July 3rd, diplomats told Al-Monitor, leaving unclear if subsequent conversations or contacts amongst those involved occurred after that date.

A spokesperson told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he had no information about any further contacts between the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton or her deputy Helga Schmid and Tehran.

Meantime, several sources told Al-Monitor they expected the US Iran team to undergo some changes as national security appointments shake out in Obama’s second term. Some sources thought chief US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman, the Undersecretary of State for Policy, would likely leave when Clinton’s successor gets her or his team in place. Several sources also said State Department arms control envoy Robert J. Einhorn is likely to depart, for a chair waiting for him at the Brookings Institution. White House WMD czar Gary Samore may stay on for now, administration sources suggested.

Despite possible changes in the US Iran negotiating team, “the administration is determined that the transition will not be a problem in moving forward,” Clawson said.

(Photo: Political directors from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China met in Brussels November 21st, at a meeting on resuming Iran nuclear talks hosted by European Union foreign policy chief and chief international negotiator Catherine Ashton. Photo posted by the European External Action Service.)