US sees opportunity in Iran election for progress in nuclear talks

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The United States, encouraged by the signals sent by Iran’s election of Hassan Rouhani, hopes Iran engages seriously and gives a substantive response when nuclear talks resume in the fall, a senior U.S. administration official said Friday.

“We have all noted Rouhani’s positive tone and remarks post-election,” the senior U.S. administration official said in a small background conference call briefing Friday.

“We are glad for the positive words,” the official continued. “But what we are looking for are actions that indicate a desire to deal seriously with the P5+1. Words are not enough. We need a concrete response.”

The American official spoke ahead of a meeting of political directors from the P5+1–the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China–in Brussels next week (July 16th ) to discuss preparations for a new meeting with Iran in the fall. Talks between the P5+1 and Iran are likely to resume at the earliest in September, following the inauguration next month of Rouhani, and depending on the logistics of arranging a meeting around the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September.

The U.S. official said the six powers are inclined to ask the Iran nuclear negotiating team assembled under Rouhani’s administration to give a concrete response to a confidence building proposal they put forward at nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in February, rather than modify or expand it before meeting with the Iranians. But she stressed that it’s not a take it or leave it offer, but open for negotiation.

“We all believe that the proposal put on the table [in Almaty] is a good one, and there is still time and space to achieve a diplomatic solution over Iran’s nuclear program,” the official said.

“In terms of a more comprehensive proposal, if Iran says the confidence building measure is fine, but asks, where are we headed?” the official said, referring to some recent calls for the P5+1 to spell out a more detailed roadmap. “We already said to them…we do believe that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program under the NPT once it meets its responsibilities. And all sanctions will be lifted if and when it has met its responsibilities.”

“If Iran says, yes, we are interested in the CBM, but let’s talk about something larger. Alright,” the official continued. “If they say they are interested in all three measures on 20% [in the proposal], but are looking for more sanctions relief. ‘What are you looking for?” the official said, demonstrating how a negotiation over a serious Iranian counter-offer may go. “’Here’s what we want in return.’ This is a negotiation.”

“What this is really about is, the onus is on Iran, to give us some substantive, concrete response,” the official said.

The US official said the United States remains interested in bilateral talks with Iran, but didn’t indicate whether Washington was preparing a new message offering direct talks, perhaps on the occasion of Rouhani’s inauguration August 4th.

“We are open to direct talks,” the official said, noting the public offers from President Obama, Vice President Biden, as well as lead US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman to Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili at P5+1 meetings over the past two years. “We think they would be valuable. I think they know that. We will reinforce that in any appropriate way we can.”

Noting the stinging critique of Jalili’s uncompromising negotiating stance delivered in Iran’s final presidential campaign debate by Ali Akbar Velalyati, the Supreme Leader’s top foreign policy advisor, the official said it tracked rather closely with the frustration felt by international negotiators.

“You want to take three steps and you expect the other side to take 100 steps, this means that you don’t want to make progress,” Velayati chided Jalili in the June 7 debate.“This is not diplomacy…. We can’t expect everything and give nothing.”

Ultimately, the official said, Washington is not focused on personalities, but seeing if there’s an opportunity to advance prospects for a deal, whomever Tehran sends as its negotiator.

“We are not under any illusions here,” the official said. “Rouhani may appear to be a moderate, but he still very much represents a conservative regime. And the nuclear file very much remains in the domain of the Supreme Leader. Will he have more space on the nuclear file? That remains to be seen.”