Iran FM Zarif, meeting Kerry, says not authorized to discuss Syria

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Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference for just over an hour Sunday.

They discussed upcoming comprehensive Iran nuclear negotiations set to get underway in Vienna this month, and the case of Americans detained or missing in Iran.

But notably, when Kerry raised the issue of Syria, Zarif indicated that he was not authorized to discuss it, a U.S. official told Al-Monitor.

“Secretary Kerry raised his concerns about the delay in moving chemical weapons to the port in Latakia, and the humanitarian situation on the ground specifically in the besieged areas,” a senior US official told Al-Monitor Sunday. “He also urged Iran to show a willingness to play a constructive role in bringing an end to the conflict.”

“Foreign Minister Zarif made clear that he did not have the authority to discuss Syria and the focus of the meeting was on the nuclear negotiations,” the U.S. official said.

It was apparently the first time the State Department has acknowledged that Kerry has tried to raise the issue of Syria directly with the Iranians–and that it was the Iranian envoy who rebuffed it.

Kerry and Zarif, who met for just over an hour, “discussed the upcoming negotiations with the P5+1 and the EU on a comprehensive agreement that will begin in Vienna” later this month, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a readout of the meeting.

Kerry “reiterated the importance of both sides negotiating in good faith and Iran abiding by its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action,” Psaki said.  “He also made clear that the United States will continue to enforce existing sanctions.”

Kerry also brought up the case of US citizens detained or believed missing in Iran, Robert Levinson, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini, and cooperation to try to secure their release, Psaki said.

Six world powers and Iran will launch the first round of negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear accord in Vienna on February 18th, the European Union and Iran announced last week.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, speaking to the Wall Street Journal Sunday, said everyone expects the talks on a final deal would be very difficult, and that the parties would take the time “necessary to get this to be the right agreement.” She also said she has accepted an invitation to travel to Iran sometime after the Vienna round of nuclear talks.

Also in Munich, Israeli officials remained in the room during Zarif’s speech to the Munich Security Conference Sunday. (The photo at the right shows Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Bogie Ya’alon in the front row, last seat, watching Zarif’s address to the Munich Security Conference Sunday.)

But Israel’s intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz had harsh words for Kerry, who got asked in the Q/A after his address to the conference Saturday about the campaign to boycott goods and divest from Israel’s settlements. The boycotts/divestment solidarity (BDS) campaign has recently received global attention because of actress Scarlett Johansson’s dismissal as a special ambassador from Oxfam International because of her association with the SodaStream company, which has a factory in the West Bank settlement of Maale Adunim. “Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a gun to its head,” Steinitz reportedly complained to reporters about Kerry’s comments.

The State Department pushed back forcefully against Steinitz’s attack, saying it was misleading to suggest that Kerry supported the boycott campaign or had threatened Israel with it.

Kerry, in Munich Saturday, “spoke forcefully in defense of Israel’s interests, as he consistently has throughout his public life,” Psaki said in an emailed statement to reporters. “His only reference to a boycott was a description of  actions undertaken by others that  he has always opposed.”

“Secretary Kerry has always expected opposition and difficult moments in the process, but he also expects all parties to accurately portray his record and statements,” Psaki said.