P5+1 consider strategy for meeting new Iran team in NY

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New Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is expected to meet with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in New York on September 23, US and Iranian diplomats told Al-Monitor.

Western officials hope the two lead negotiators will be able to agree at the meeting on a new date and venue for resumed P5+1 talks on Iran's nuclear program.

Meantime, the foreign ministers from the P5+1—the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia—are due to meet on Iran in New York, possibly on September 26th, a western official, speaking not attribution, said Thursday. (The State Department said it did not yet have a confirmed date for that meeting.) Iran is not currently expected to attend the meeting, but one source left open the possibility that could potentially change, depending on what Zarif and Ashton decide.

While Zarif is also expected to separately meet with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and with Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, no meeting with the U.S. has been planned, he told Iran’s Press TV in an interview Wednesday.

It’s possible that an impromptu “hallway” meeting could occur between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif, but one is not planned, a western source suggested.

The White House has not confirmed but neither denied numerous Iranian reports that President Obama sent new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani a letter last month following his inauguration. A spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council told the Back Channel that they don’t discuss private correspondence. But current and former US officials indicated to the Back Channel they believe such a letter was sent, via Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, who traveled to Iran late last month. Obama is reported to have sent two earlier letters to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in 2009 and earlier this year.

Iran's President Rouhani is expected to address the UN General Assembly on September 24th, speak at a disarmament conference Sept. 26th, and and to hold a press conference on Sept. 27th. (President Obama is expected to address the body in the morning, Rouhani in the afternoon, of September 24th.) US and Iranian sources thought it unlikely the two would meet at this time.

American officials are impressed by the diplomatic sophistication of Rouhani and Zarif, but also somewhat nervous that the new Iranian team, by being so much more PR-savvy and competent than its predecessor, may be able to shift media and public perceptions in Iran's favor, even if their substantive positions don't much change.

They also believe, as American officials have said publicly numerous times, that direct talks between the US and Iran would be vitally helpful to try to peacefully resolve international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. “The most productive way” would be for the US and Iran to “sit down and explore what’s possible… a very frank give and take about what each side is really seeking in these negotiations,” former top State Department Iran arms control negotiator Robert Einhorn said Thursday at the Atlantic Council, Barbara Slavin reported.

Rouhani has numerous times indicated he is willing to bring more transparency to the Iranian nuclear program, but not halt Iran's lower level enrichment. Western officials say while more transparency is welcome, it is not enough. Iran would also need to accept some limits on its enrichment program to reassure the international community that it could not “break out” and produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon using declared facilities under regular inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Iranian sources have recently suggested that Iran might be willing to limit the number of its centrifuges, but not the quality of them; cap enrichment at 5%; accept a more intrusive IAEA inspection and safeguards regime; and sign the Additional Protocol, in return for significant sanctions relief, recognition of its legal right to enrich, and additional, unspecified incentives put forward by three European powers in a past proposal.

(Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.IRNA Photo.)

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