Burns to join Iran nuclear talks in Vienna

US Deputy Secretary of State Williams Burns will join talks between Iran, the U.S. and European Union in Vienna on Monday, US officials said.

Burns was seen on the plane Sunday traveling with the US delegation, led by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, to Vienna. He and Sherman are expected to meet Monday with Iranian and European Union negotiators. Sherman will stay on for nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 expected to go til Friday, as efforts intensify to reach a final nuclear accord by July 20.

“We’re at a critical point in these negotiations, and we’re going to work as hard as we possibly can to see if we can get to an agreement here,” a senior U.S. Administration official told Al-Monitor Monday. “Deputy Burns will be joining for meetings on the 16th, including an expected trilateral with Iran and the EU.”

“We’ve always said our diplomatic efforts would continue to intensify, and they have,” the US official said. “This is another example of that effort. And we’ve been clear that various members of our negotiating team – especially the Deputy, given his history working on this issue with the Iranians – will participate in various meetings throughout this process.”

Burns previously led secret US bilateral talks with Iran last fall. But last week the State Department announced that he and Sherman were co-leading the US team to bilateral talks with Iran in Geneva in order to break what reportedly has been a deadlock in the negotiations.

As negotiators intensify efforts to reach a final nuclear accord by July 20, the US bilateral and P5+1 nuclear negotiating teams seem to have merged, and the US Iran contacts on a nuclear deal become less secret. The US will also this week open contacts with Iran about the security crisis in Iraq, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

Burns, when he traveled to Oman for secret nuclear talks with Iran last year, reportedly traveled on an unmarked US government plane. But he, Sherman and their team were seen Sunday at the Washington Dulles airport business lounge awaiting their flight to Vienna, with no apparent attempt at hiding his presence.

US energy envoy Pascual to step down

US Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs Carlos Pascual announced Friday he will step down in July, U.S. officials told the Back Channel.

The departure plans come as oil proces have spiked amid the new security crisis in Iraq, as al Qaeda-linked the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overtook the city of Mosul.

Pascual, a former US envoy to Mexico and Ukraine, stood up the new energy affairs bureau three years ago, but was never confirmed. He is expected to head next to Columbia University.

Pascual’s deputy Amos Hochstein is considered a possible nominee to succeed him.

US, Iran hold ‘intensive, useful’ talks as negotiations intensify

Washington, D.C.__ U.S. and Iranian nuclear negotiators have held two days of “intensive.. useful” talks, but gaps still remain, Iranian officials said Tuesday.

The talks, lasting 12 hours over two days in Geneva, were “intensive…but useful,” and “held in a good atmosphere,” an Iranian diplomat told Al-Monitor after talks ended Tuesday. “Gaps are still there. Consultations will continue.”

The US-Iran meetings “were business-like, and we covered all the issues that we have been discussing so far in Vienna,” a second Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “The exchange helped us better understand each others’ positions.”

“After these meetings in Geneva and bilateral meetings with the French, Russians and the Germans in the next few days, we hope we will be better prepared to start the talks next week in Vienna,” the second Iranian official said.

Iranian negotiators are due to hold a bilateral meeting with French counterparts in Geneva on Wednesday, and with Russia in Rome on Thursday and Friday. Iran will hold a bilateral meeting with Germany’s political director in Tehran Sunday, ahead of the next round of final deal talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna June 16-20.

The US delegation to Geneva, led by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, has not yet publicly commented on the bilateral consultations with Iran, which were held at an undisclosed location. (Journalists in Geneva said they believed the talks were being held at Geneva’s President Wilson hotel, where the US delegation was thought to be staying, but the hotel would not confirm that.)

State Department and European Union spokespeople stressed that the series of bilateral meetings underway this week were all in support of the comprehensive deal negotiations being carried out by the P5+1 under the coordination of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The talks are now intensifying, they said, as the parties aim to see if they can reach a final accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires, or will need to be extended for up to another six months.

“The E3/EU+3’s diplomatic efforts to reach a comprehensive solution are now intensifying,” Michael Mann, Ashton’s spokesman, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “They have always taken place at different levels and in different formats and included bilateral meetings in support of the central E3/EU+3 nuclear negotiations led by [High Representative] Ashton.”

“We’ve always said that we would engage the Iranians bilaterally if it can help advance our efforts, of course acting in total coordination with the P5+1 and the EU,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told journalists at the State Department press briefing Monday.

“We also said that there was going to be an intensification of diplomatic efforts, particularly getting closer to July 20th,” Harf said “If we’re going to seriously test whether we can reach a diplomatic solution here, we need to engage in as much active diplomacy as possible.”

Meantime, France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday that it would be hard to close wide gaps over the size of Iran enrichment capacity in a final deal by next month.

“We are still hitting a wall on one absolutely fundamental point which is the number of centrifuges which allow enrichment,” Fabius told France Inter radio Tuesday, Reuters reported. “We say that there can be a few hundred centrifuges, but the Iranians want thousands so we’re not in the same framework.”

The timing of Fabius’ public comments, as the US held the first lengthy, one on one talks with Iran since last year, raised some eyebrows in Washington.

Asked about them, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Tuesday the focus should remain on the “behind the scenes” talks, not “public demands.”

“Subconsciously, [Fabius] hates when [the] US-Iran meet bilaterally for the usual French reasons,” Jeremy Shapiro, a Brookings fellow in foreign policy studies, told Al-Monitor. “More consciously, he doesn’t trust the US as negotiators and believes he plays an important role in shoring them up and ensuring that they don’t give away the store.”

France’s new political director Nicolas de Riviere will take part in bilateral discussions with Iranian negotiators in Geneva on Wednesday, Araghchi told Iran’s IRNA news agency.

(Photo of Iran’s delegation, including Deputy Foreign Ministers Abbas Araghchi and Majid Ravanchi ,and the head of its expert team Hamid Baeedinejad, heading to the Geneva talks on June 9, 2014, from Iran MFA website.)

US, Iran to hold bilateral nuclear talks in Geneva

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US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will lead a US delegation to meet with Iranian nuclear negotiators in Geneva on June 9-10, US and Iranian officials said Saturday.

The bilateral meetings come as negotiators intensify efforts to see if they can reach a final nuclear accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires, or if they will need to extend the talks for another six months.

“We believe we need to engage in as much active diplomacy as we can to test whether we can reach a diplomatic solution with Iran on its nuclear program,” a senior U.S. administration official said Saturday, noting that the US-Iran consultations “come at an important juncture” of the negotiations, as the “talks are intensifying.”

The meetings are taking place “in the context of the intensified E3/EU+3 negotiating process,” and are coordinated by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, her spokesman Michael Mann said Saturday. Ashton’s deputy, EU political director Helga Schmid will join the US Iran consultations in Geneva, he said, and other bilaterals will follow in the next days.

The US delegation will include, in addition to Burns and Sherman, Vice President Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan, deputy US negotiator Amb. Brooke Amderson, senior arms control advisor Jim Timbie, and NSC senior Middle East advisor Rob Malley, among others, a State Department official told Al-Monitor.

Iran will hold separate meetings with Russian negotiators in Rome on June 11-12, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported Saturday.

20140607-102130.jpgIranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi on Saturday announced that Iran would hold bilateral meetings at the deputy foreign minister level ahead of the next P5+1 Iran nuclear talks, due to be held in Vienna June 16-20.

Burns led a secret US diplomatic “back channel” to Iran last year that culminated in the signing of the interim nuclear deal, known as the Joint Plan of Action, in Geneva last November. Burns’ secret team included Sullivan as well as then NSC Persian Gulf advisor Puneet Talwar, now assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, who has been succeeded by Malley. Burns has announced he will retire in October. The EU’s Ashton, the lead international negotiator for the six world powers, is also due to finish her term in October, adding impetus to complete the negotiations by then.

20140607-104205.jpgUntil now, the US and Iran have not pursued the bilateral channel to advance final deal talks this year, outside of meetings on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran negotiations in Vienna, US and Iranian officials have said. Notably, unlike the secret US-Iran meetings held in Oman, Geneva and New York last year, the US-Iran meeting in Geneva Monday was announced by both sides.

US officials said Saturday it made sense to bring the bilateral channel negotiators involved in advancing the interim deal last fall into the discussions at this critical time.

“It’s natural for Bill and Jake to join the delegation for this meeting given their history of negotiating with Iran during the Joint Plan of Action talks,” the US official said, referring to Burns and Sullivan. “The elements now under discussion in our negotiations over a comprehensive solution were part of the JPOA. So it just makes sense.”

“If a deal is going to be possible by July 20, the Americans and Iranians have to get down to real, no-kidding bottom lines now, and then go back to the P5+1 with the broad outlines of the deal,” former top Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told Al-Monitor Saturday. “These bilateral talks will probably determine whether a July 20 agreement is possible or whether we need to work out an extension.”

“The Iranians, in particular, need to come back with much more flexibility on enrichment, and the U.S. team will also need some creative ideas to address Iran’s ‘practical needs’ argument,” Kahl, now a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), said, referring to the amount of enrichment capacity Iran will need to fuel power reactors and produce medical isotopes.

Iran, in turn, is concerned about the pace of sanctions relief in a final deal, and has balked at a P5+1 proposal that would unwind sanctions on a phased, step by step basis, over as long as a decade or two. Iran also wants to limit the amount of time it would be required to submit to highly intrusive inspections and transparency measures that it fears could be abused by adversaries to snoop on its defense capabilities.

“The addition of Burns and Sullivan, who were essential to the success of behind-the-scenes diplomacy last year, and the bilateral nature of the talks suggests something may be up,” a former senior U.S. official told Al-Monitor Saturday.

“Together with recent news that [Iran Supreme Leader] Khameini is telling hardline critics to get in line behind Iran’s negotiating team, it seems to suggest that negotiations are entering a very serious phase,” the former American official said.

(Top photo of US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns in Wiesbadden in February, 2009 by Reuters. Second photo of US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in Geneva in November, 2013. Third photo: Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, deputy Iranian negotiators Majid Ravanchi and Abbas Araghchi at a P5+1 Iran meeting at the United Nations in New York September 24, 2013.)

France gets new Iran negotiator


When six world powers and Iran next hold nuclear talks in Vienna June 16th, France will have a new top negotiator.

France’s longtime lead negotiator, political director Jacques Audibert, was tapped in May to head the French Presidential (Elysee) diplomatic office on G-7/G-8 and multilateral issues.

France’s new political director and top negotiator at the P5+1 talks with Iran will be Nicolas de Rivière, who most recently served as France’s assistant secretary of UN affairs. De Riviere previously served as France’s deputy permanent representative at the UN in NY, among other diplomatic assignments.

The switch in France’s Iran team is not the only personnel change on the horizon, as negotiators seek to reach a final Iran nuclear accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is due to step down in October. US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who led a US diplomatic “back channel” to Iran last year, has also announced he will retire in October.

Technical experts from the P5+1 and Iran began meeting in Vienna Wednesday for two days of expert level talks (June 5-6).

Meantime, lead US Iran nuclear negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is in Brussels Wednesday as part of President Obama’s delegation to the G-7 Leaders’ Summit, the State Department said.

US officials say they are working to try to reach a final deal by July 20th. “We are working towards the July 20th date, and we believe we can meet that date,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told Al-Monitor Monday.

But one western diplomat from a member of the six negotiating powers told Al-Monitor Wednesday that he thinks an extension is probably likely to be needed.

“The end of July comes very, very soon,” the western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “We definitely prefer to have a strong, clear, sustainable long-term agreement, even if we need a few months more, than what would be considered as an insufficiently good…agreement in the next six weeks.”

The western diplomat described the final deal talks to date as “serious” and delving deeply into the details. But the last round of talks in Vienna in May, while “serious,” were “also difficult,” he said. “We still have wide differences on some of the fundamentals of the talks, including mainly Arak and uranium enrichment capacity.”

The Iranians “have to make a clear political choice, which is really a kind of prerequisite for a long-term and sustainable agreement,” the diplomat said.

(Top photo: Russia’s Sergey Ryabkov, France’s Jacques Audibert, USA’s William Burns, China’s Wu Hailong, Britain’s Robert Cooper and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton meet in Geneva, in December 2010. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AFP/Getty. Second photo: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Nicolas de Rivière, UN director at the French foreign ministry. Photo by French UN office.)

Ex envoy Ford says could not defend US Syria policy

Recently retired US Syria envoy Robert Ford told CNN Tuesday that he resigned because he could not defend US policy on Syria.

“I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend American policy,” former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Tuesday.

“We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting…and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat,” said Ford, who resigned in March from the State Department after a three decade diplomatic career.

There is “nothing we can point to that has been very successful to in our policy except the removal of about 93% of some of Assad’s chemicals, but now he is using chlorine gas against his opponents,” Ford said. “The regime simply has no credibility, and our policy is not addressing the Syrian crisis as it needs to.”

Of the growing extremism threat from Syria, Ford said that he and unspecified colleagues had warned more than two years ago that Syria would prove fertile ground for terrorists.

“We warned even as long as two years ago that terrorist groups would go into that vacuum, as we had seen in places like Afghanistan and Somalia and Yemen and Mali,” Ford said. “This is not rocket science.”

Ford said Tuesday that increased US support earlier on in the conflict to moderate Syrian opposition forces could have helped prevent extremists from getting such a big foothold in Syria. And he cast doubt on whether the increased efforts President Obama seemed to be considering ahead of his foreign policy speech at West Point last week would be enough.

“It’s not clear to me yet if they are prepared to ramp up (assistance) in a such a way that would be meaningful on the ground and that’s what matters,” Ford told PBS’s Margaret Warner in a separate interview Tuesday.

Ford, until his retirement one of the State Department’s top Arabists who previously served as US Ambassador to Algeria and deputy US Ambassador to Iraq, is slated to join the Middle East Institute as a senior fellow. He could not immediately be reached Tuesday.

Ford is hardly the first Syria mediator to quit in frustration. UN/Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi resigned last month, as did his predecessor Kofi Annan before him. Former US envoy on Syria transition issues Frederic Hof, who quit in 2012, has also become an outspoken critic of US Syria policy.

As to why Ford had not previously voiced such criticisms in the three months since he resigned, Hof noted in March that Ford was still on the government payroll and required to adhere to official policy and talking points. Ford “will likely speak out when he is free to do so,” Hof, now at the Atlantic Council, wrote.

“For quite some time, the only things keeping Robert in harness were Secretary Kerry’s pleas and Robert’s hope that Kerry could change the policy,” a former diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel Tuesday. “In the end he concluded he could no longer serve as apologist-in-chief for a rhetoric-based policy fundamentally unaligned with ground truth in Syria.”

Meantime, in Syria Tuesday, Bashar al-Assad was expected to be declared the winner in presidential polls being run in government-held parts of the country, in elections that the US and western nations have condemned as farcical and illegitimate. Iran, Russia and North Korea have reportedly sent observers to the polls to try to bolster the appearance of legitimacy.

Updated: U.S. denies mulling extension on Iran talks

Updated 7/2:

Washington, D.C. __ The US on Monday denied that it is signaling that it is prepared to have to extend Iran nuclear talks into the fall if Iran does not return to the table with more realistic proposals including on the centrifuge capacity it could be expected to have in a final deal.

A senior US administration official, briefing small groups of Washington experts in recent days, has been downbeat about prospects for reaching a final deal by July 20, Al-Monitor reported Sunday, citing sources briefed by the official. One expert, speaking not for attribution, was left with the impression that the senior U.S. official “didn’t think it would get done.”

Update: “The United States is not signaling that we are prepared to extend the Iran nuclear negotiations, period,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told Al-Monitor Monday. “We are working towards the July 20th date, and we believe we can meet that date.”

“Of course, Iran will have to make tough decisions and the administration remains clear that no deal is better than a bad deal,” Harf said.

“We are not there yet,” however, a US official told Al-Monitor Friday, about whether the administration thought it would require an extension.

The US needs to determine “whether we see a mindset [from Iran] that is more realistic about what the outcome will have to be here,” the U.S. administration official told Al Monitor Friday. “We are not just waiting for a response…. There are discussions.”

Experts from Iran and the P5+1 are due to hold technical talks in Vienna next week (June 5-6) on the sidelines of an IAEA board of governors meeting. The P5+1 and Iran are scheduled to hold the next round of final deal talks in Vienna on June 16-20.

With less than two months to go ‘til a July 20 expiration of an interim Iran nuclear deal, the US and Iran are not yet pursuing parallel bilateral meetings to narrow wide differences for a nuclear deal, US and Iranian sources tell Al-Monitor. That may be because the US and P5+1 believe that Iran is going to have to do most of the modifying, particularly on enrichment capacity, if a final deal is to be reached, US experts recently briefed by Obama administration officials tell Al-Monitor.

“The Iranians know what the bottom line is,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran expert now at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor Friday. “This will not be a case of meeting in the middle.”

“It will be difficult for the powers to reach an agreement with Iran by the deadline of July 20,” Robert Einhorn, a former top US Iran arms control advisor, told Israel’s Ynetnew.com Sunday. “The last round of talks didn’t amount to expectations. There was hope that some main issues would be solved, like the issue of the reactor in Arak…but that didn’t happen.”

“My assessment is that when faced with the alternative of ending the talks, the two sides will agree to extend them,” Einhorn, now with the Brookings Institution, told Ynet.

“The odds of success are still long,” President Obama told graduating West Point cadets Wednesday, referring to a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal. “But for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement — one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force. “

The American side and the P5+1 “had sticker shock at what the Iranians came in on in Vienna,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor Friday, referring to the Iranian proposal for the amount of centrifuges it would like to have in a final deal at the last round of talks in Vienna in May.

The Iranians seemed to have “the impression that the P5+1 was desperate for a deal, but it’s actually not true,” Clawson said. “Therefore they [the US and P5+1] are prepared to let the Iranians” stew in the impasse for now, and may not be rushing to send the bilat team to meet with them to try to narrow positions.

“There will be no final nuclear deal without direct US and Iran bilateral talks,” former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian told an audience at the New America Foundation in New York last week.

The U.S. may yet pursue face to face meetings with Iran at a future point in the negotiations, U.S. sources told Al-Monitor, but hasn’t to date this year done so, outside of those meetings that have taken place on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran talks.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Sunday that he would not be able to attend a June 18 meeting of Organization of Islamic States foreign ministers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia due to the Iran P5+1 nuclear talks previously scheduled to be held in Vienna June 16-20, Iranian media reported.

Iran, P5+1 to meet June 16-20, EU says

Top European Union and Iranian negotiators on Tuesday called for a new round of Iran nuclear deal talks to be held June 16-20 in Vienna, after two days of “very long and useful discussions” in Istanbul, the EU said Tuesday.

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton held more than eight hours of meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over the past two days in Istanbul, “in order to inform the negotiations” on Iran’s nuclear program, European Union foreign policy spokesman Michael Mann said Tuesday. “They explored different possibilities as part of an ongoing process.”

The next formal round of comprehensive deal talks between the P5+1 and Iran will be held from 16-20 June in Vienna, the EU said.

An experts level meeting should take place before that, June 5-6 in Vienna, the EU later announced.

“Other political discussions will continue as and when needed,” Mann said.

As yet this year, the US and Iran have not pursued bilateral talks outside of meetings on the sidelines of the Vienna talks, US and Iranian officials have told Al-Monitor. But Washington appears to be considering doing so as the parties try to conclude a final accord by the July 20th expiration of a six-month interim deal.

“New options should be looked into and brought forward,” Zarif told journalists upon arrival in Vienna Monday.

Zarif was accompanied to Istanbul by Iran Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzyieh Afkham, Deputy Foreign Ministers Majid Takht Ravanchi and Abbas Araghchi, and the head of Iran’s expert team Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said.

Ashton was thought to be accompanied by Deputy Helga Schmid, chief of staff James Morrison, and nonproliferation advisor Stephan Kllement.

Iran, EU negotiators meet in Istanbul

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Istanbul on Monday, along with their aides, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Monday, even as the EU stayed mum on the meeting, first reported by Al-Monitor.

The meeting started around 4pm Monday and continued over a dinner at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul, Iranian media said. It is expected to continue Tuesday morning.

“The two sides will discuss [the] latest developments on [the] nuclear dispute and positive steps are expected to be taken to this effect,” the Iran foreign ministry website said.

Zarif, upon arrival in Istanbul, told reporters that it is a meeting between his team and Ashton and her aides, and is not a meeting of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), the foreign ministry website noted.

A spokesman for Ashton told Al-Monitor Monday that he had no comment on and could not confirm any meeting. It was not clear why the EU has been unwilling so far to acknowledge the meeting.

U.S. officials were not expected to attend, Al-Monitor was told.

Update: EU High Representative Ashton “held very long and useful discussions” with Iran Foreign Minister Zarif, EU foreign policy spokesperson Michael Mann said in a statement Tuesday. “They explored different possibilities as part of an ongoing process.”

The next round of P5+1 Iran final deal talks will be held June 16-20 in Vienna, Mann said, adding that Ashton and Zarif are recommending a round of experts level talks be held before that. “Other political discussions will happen as and when needed.”

Zarif held over eight hours of discussions with Ashton over the past two days, Iranian media cited Iranian officials Tuesday.

(Photo of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaking to reporters upon arrival in Istanbul May 26 from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.)