Mixed signals from P5+1 ahead of new Iran talks

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Six power talks with Iran, on hold since July, now seem likely to resume more or less where they left off, though the updated package does offer specific, if limited, sanctions relief, and would be the “opening bid,” sources tell the Back Channel.

After weeks of deliberations, the updated P5+1 proposal to Iran is more or less a warmed up version of what was presented to Iran last May in Baghdad, Barbara Slavin reported at Al Monitor Wednesday.

But sources familiar with the American deliberations tell the Back Channel the six powers might be willing to sweeten the deal if and when the Iranians return to the table, but do not want to appear overly eager.

“On Iran, it may be the P5+1 have agreed behind the scenes to some possible sanctions relief …but don’t want to be seen as too eager for a deal,” a source familiar with US administration thinking told the Back Channel Thursday on condition of anonymity. “Any offer they make is only an initial bid.”

The presumption is that the Iranians will demand more no matter how generous the updated initial offer is. “So the P5+1 may be putting the ball in Tehran’s court to start the more-for-more discussion, and then will respond accordingly,” he said. If Iran wants more, what more would they be willing to offer.

The P5+1 “have decided to put concrete sanctions relief in the package,” another expert told the Back Channel on condition of anonymity Thursday. Such relief specifies that “Iran could purchase certain things, what are those certain things,” with a degree of concrete detail apparently not in the original package.

Iran has still not responded to meeting dates proposed by the deputy to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in a phone call last week (December 12th), a spokesperson for Ashton told the Back Channel Thursday.  The working assumption is that new round of P5+1/Iran talks will materialize in January.

But other observers describe the process in something of a holding pattern–in part, some European diplomats assess, because the US administration seems somewhat distracted by the coming transition of key cabinet chiefs, particularly US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, expected to be succeeded by John Kerry.

Still unresolved too is whether Iran will agree to direct talks with the United States.

The U.S. would like to have bilateral talks with Iran, either on the sidelines of the P5+1 process, or in the future, independent of the P5+1, the expert briefed by the administration said. But Iran, while having a “sincere conversation” about this, to date has not agreed.

On Thursday, 24 prominent former diplomats, military officers, Iran and arms control experts urged President Obama to pursue more robust and creative diplomacy to try to reach a negotiated settlement with Iran.

“We strongly encourage you to take immediate action to reengage in the direct multilateral and bilateral diplomacy with Iran necessary to achieve this goal,” the group, including former US Ambassadors Thomas Pickering, James Dobbins and John Limbert, wrote. “We are directing the same appeal to Iran. Time is of the essence, and we hope you will utilize the weeks and months ahead to pursue a robust diplomatic initiative.”

(Photo: European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton (L) meets with Iran’s Chief Negotiator Saeed Jalili (R) in Moscow, June 18, 2012.REUTERS/Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool.)