Top Iran, EU diplomats agree to meet to plan new nuclear talks

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Top European diplomat Catherine Ashton has agreed to meet soon with Iran’s new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, to advance preparations for resumed nuclear negotiations. The meeting plans come amid unconfirmed Iranian media speculation about Zarif possibly playing a key role in the negotiations–speculation that may be linked to new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's expressed interest in having the nuclear negotiations conducted at higher level representation, Iran analysts suggested.

Ashton, in a congratulatory phone call to Zarif on Saturday August 17th, said six world powers “were ready to work with the new Iranian negotiating team as soon as they were appointed,” a press statement (.pdf) from the office of the European Union foreign policy chief said. Ashton and Zarif also agreed “to meet soon.”

Western officials said Sunday that Ashton's proposed meeting with Zarif did not indicate in any way whether Zarif was expected to be Iran’s chief interlocutor in the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, succeeding Saeed Jalili, Iran’s former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.

A spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry said Sunday that no such decision has yet been made, Iranian media reports said.

American officials, speaking not for attribution Sunday, said they were awaiting the appointment of Iran's new nuclear team, and indicated they were aware of unconfirmed Iranian rumors and media reports that Rouhani was studying transferring Iran’s nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Zarif, a former Iranian envoy to the United Nations who earned his PhD at the University of Denver, forged ties with many US national security experts when he served in New York, and his appointment as foreign minister has been seen in the West as an encouraging sign. So too has that of outgoing foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi to become Iran's next chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI).

Zarif, for his part, demurred in an interview Saturday on whether the nuclear dossier was being moved to his purview, while noting that Iranian President Rouhani had the authority to make such a decision.

“I have not heard anything about this issue,” Zarif told Iran's IRDiplomacy August 17th. “This is a decision that is within the domain of the President’s authority. Nevertheless, considering my experiences in this case, I will make efforts to help in the advancement of this issue no matter what responsibility I might have. But decisions with regard to how we should pursue the nuclear dossier and the form and framework of negotiations are made at the higher levels of our political system.”

Zarif “is a smooth operator, a very clever and successful diplomat,” Gary Samore, former Obama White House WMD czar, told Al-Monitor in an interview earlier this month. “When I knew him, [after Iran indicated it was going to resume enriching uranium after a suspension in] 2005, I engaged in a number of discussions about the nuclear program; he was a very forceful advocate… but that’s fine. He’s more pleasant to deal with.”

“I have seen no indication of a change of substance” in Iran’s nuclear negotiating stance as yet, Samore, now with Harvard's Belfer Center, continued. “The next couple of months are all about process. Will there be some kind of bilateral [US-Iran] channel established, which I think everybody agrees is a necessary condition for achieving an agreement.”

The six-party nuclear negotiations with Iran are “too clumsy,” Samore said, adding the other powers in the P5+1–the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia–have expressed support for direct US-Iran talks.

Zarif, asked whether talks with the US would improve Iran's relations with Europe, which last year imposed a ban on the import of Iranian oil, said he “consider[s] political determination as the prerequisite for the improvement of relations,” he told IRDipllomacy.

“In Iran, the election of Mr. Rohani shows that the people have decided to have constructive interaction with the world and, through his speeches and choices, Mr. Rohani has also displayed his political determination to do so,” Zarif said. “Now, what is important is for the same determination to be formed on the other side.”

Ali Vaez, senior Iran expert at the International Crisis Group, noted that Rouhani in his memoir discussed the relative benefits of having the nuclear dossier handled by the Foreign Ministry over the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). “It is because decision-making is much easier,” Vaez said. “The SNSC is a cumbersome process. It’s not perfect.”

Rouhani also made the case in his book, Vaez noted, for having the nuclear negotiations conducted at a higher level of diplomatic representation than they are currently; talks between the P5+1 and Iran have been conducted since 2005 at the political director level, three rungs down from the Secretary of State/foreign minister.

During Iran’s presidential campaign, Rouhani noted that when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator, he was initially negotiating with European foreign ministers, and later on directly with then French President Jacques Chirac, Vaez said. For the past several years, however, negotiations have been conducted at the political director level—and made little headway. “Rouhani is not satisfied,” Vaez said. “Political directors simply do not have the [necessary] authority.”

Western officials said Ashton and Zarif would determine in their meeting when to schedule the next round of nuclear talks between six world powers and Iran, possibly as early as next month.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has invited Rouhani and Zarif to attend the opening session of the UN General Assembly in New York next month, Iranian media reports said. Iran media reports said Zarif and Ashton would likely meet on the sidelines of the UN events in New York in September, which European officials said was a possibility, but not yet confirmed.

(Photo: Iran's new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaks with an MP during a parliament session in Tehran on Aug. 15, 2013. Zarif was confirmed by parliament the same day. Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

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