Egyptian Elections: Between a Rock and a Hard Place


With only a few weeks left until the run-off elections in Egypt, there are still many questions left unanswered.  Where’s the constitution? What role will the military play in the new regime? Where does the US stand? Will there be more protests?

Barbara Slavin moderated a panel of leading experts on Egypt, co-sponsored by Al-Monitor, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Thursday to debate these questions and what they mean for Egypt.

Despite their varying views, all three panelists seemed to agree that the choice Egyptians are left with is, for the most part, one between the lesser of two evils. On the one hand, there is the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammad Morsi. On the other, former Mubarak player, Ahmad Shafiq. Continue reading

Expert Offers Calming Words on Iran Nuclear Program

My colleague Barbara Slavin writes:

In the wake of last week’s nuclear talks in Baghdad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday blasted the process as a waste of time that is allowing Iran to get closer to nuclear weapons.
But Iran’s progress toward bomb capacity is not as fast as some have feared and there is ample time for more talking, according to David Albright, president and founder of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. Albright told an audience at the Atlantic Council on Tuesday that “the technical clock is not ticking as fast” as the “political clock.” The latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on the Iranian nuclear program shows that Iran is still having trouble building more advanced centrifuges than the breakdown-prone P-1 centrifuge, which is based on a Dutch design from the 1970s that was passed to Iran by the Pakistani nuclear black market king A.Q. Khan. Iran also appears to be having difficulty getting materials for the P-1s. Of more than 2,000 centrifuge casings installed earlier this year at the underground Fordow plant near Qom, only a few hundred have had rotor assemblies installed in them, Albright said. Continue reading

U.S. expels Syrian charge d’affaires over Houla massacre

The United States announced Tuesday it is expelling Syria’s charge d’affaires in response to the May 25 massacre in the village of Houla that killed more than 90 people, including 30 children under 10 years old.

Zuheir Jabbour, currently the most senior Syrian diplomat in Washington, has 72 hours to leave the country, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. Jabbour was informed of the expulsion order Tuesday.

“We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives,” Nuland said in a statement Tuesday. “This massacre is the most unambiguous indictment to date of the Syrian government’s flagrant violations of its UN Security Council obligations under Resolutions 2042 and 2043 along with the regime’s ongoing threat to peace and security.”

“United Nations observers confirmed the deaths of more than 90 people, including at least 30 children under the age of 10, after the vicious assault involving tanks and artillery – weapons that only the regime possesses,” Nuland said. “There are also reports that many families were summarily executed in their homes by regime forces.”

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Iran Nuclear Talks in Baghdad Almost Foundered in Final Hours

Baghdad — Recently resumed Iran nuclear talks almost collapsed in Baghdad, just a couple hours before the chief international negotiator announced that the parties had agreed to hold a third meeting in Moscow next month, Western diplomats told Al-Monitor Friday.

The first Iran nuclear talks in over a year, in Istanbul last month, were roundly praised by all parties as constructive and held in a positive atmosphere.

The Baghdad meeting got off to a tense and difficult start Wednesday (May 23), after Iran gave a decidedly chilly reception to a proposed international package of inducements for curbing its 20 percent uranium enrichment. However, it was late on the talks’ second day (May 24) when the diplomatic process almost totally broke down, European diplomats told Al-Monitor. Nor has it been previously reported that a key impasse was not just between Iran and the six-nation negotiating group known as the P5+1; but rather among members of the P5+1 themselves about the language of the final statement. Specifically, the diplomats disagreed over whether to issue a final statement that might risk not moving to another meeting, or trying to gain acceptance by Iran to the P5+1 statement, so the diplomatic process could move ahead, diplomats said.

“The danger of a breakdown came in the afternoon of the second day,” a European diplomat told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity Friday. “We just didn’t look like we had agreement, enough compromise.”

At the very end, the final statement reflected a sufficient level of compromise so they could go forward, he said.

Other nations had thought they should take a harder line.

The diplomat declined to identify which nations in the P5+1 — the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China — pushed for taking a harder line. But he did say that lead international negotiator, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, was ultimately able to find a compromise in working out the text of the final document that every member of the group unanimously endorsed. The statement said while significant gaps remain between Iran and the P5+1, there was enough common ground to move to another meeting to try to advance areas of agreement.

“Obviously it’s a lot harder in Baghdad because of the security situation,” said the diplomat. “But [Ashton’s team] was happy to avail themselves of the Iraqi hosts.” Ashton’s team got both Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister (and former oil minister) Hussein al-Shahristani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari “to engage with the Iranians to understand what their position is,” the diplomat said as one example.

She also sent the Chinese and Russian negotiators into an eleventh-hour trilateral meeting with the Iranians late Thursday. At the meeting, Iran proposed three venues acceptable to it for a follow-up meeting: Astana, Kazakhstan; Beijing or Moscow. At a plenary meeting at the conclusion of the talks, it only took five minutes for all the diplomats to settle on Moscow.

“What she wanted to do is to make sure we move forward, but not move forward at any cost,” the diplomat said. “I think she found that balance.”

“The bottom line is: she laid out a strategy that says, ‘Let’s get clear what the views are: to get enough agreement from the Iranians to move to a more detailed examination of the two proposals,” he said. “This is unprecedented.”

Ashton “doesn’t want talks for talks’ sake,” a second, senior European diplomat said in an interview with Al-Monitor Friday. On this point, all six nations in the P5+1 agree, the second diplomat said.

The difficulty of the Baghdad meetings actually overshadowed some important developments in their approach to the negotiations, the senior diplomat added. Continue reading

Nuclear Monitors in Iran Detect ‘Unalarming’ Enrichment

My colleague, Barbara Slavin, writes:

A report today by the Associated Press that nuclear inspectors have found traces of uranium enriched beyond 20 percent at Iran’s Fordow enrichment plant appears to reflect changes in the design of centrifuge cascades rather than a deliberate Iranian effort to get closer to weapons-grade uranium.

David Albright, a former arms inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based organization that closely tracks nuclear proliferation, told Al-Monitor in an email that the higher level of enrichment “is likely due to improved cascade design. The cascades at Fordow making 19.7 percent LEU [low-enriched uranium] have 17 stages instead of 15 as in the old cascade design. An effect is to overshoot 20 percent when 3.5 percent LEU is fed into the tandem cascades at the old feed rate for 15 stage cascades.”

According to the AP, which cited “several diplomats,”  “the International Atomic Energy Agency has found traces of uranium enriched up to 27 percent”  at Fordow, which is built into the side of a mountain near the holy city of Qom and whose existence was hidden by Iran until the plant was discovered by Western intelligence in 2009.

Albright said the discovery of uranium enriched beyond 20 percent “is an embarrassment for Iran but it is not a sign of Iran moving to higher enrichments. Nonetheless, its deployment of a 17 stage cascade reflects a reconfiguration of the cascades that can make breakout faster and more efficient.”

Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 90 percent of the isotope U-235 and it would take Iran only a few months to turn 20 percent uranium into potential bomb fuel. Friday’s news suggests, however, that inspectors would detect any such diversion.

According to the latest IAEA report, Iran has produced 6197 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 5 percent and 145.6 kilograms of 20-percent uranium – 45.6 kilograms of the latter at the Fordow plant. Asked by the IAEA about the traces of 27 percent uranium at Fordow, Iran told the IAEA that “the production of such particles ‘above the target value’ may happen for technical reasons beyond the operator’s control.”

Iran, which just concluded two days of “intense” talks in Baghdad over its nuclear program, insists that its activities are purely peaceful in nature. Iran says it needs 20 percent-enriched uranium to fuel a reactor in Tehran that makes medical isotopes for cancer patients. The United States and its negotiating partners have offered to provide fuel for that reactor if Iran stops enriching uranium beyond the 3.5 percent needed for most civilian uses. Iran, however, appears to be seeking more incentives before signing any deal.

‘Intense’ Iran nuclear talks end with agreement to meet again

Amman_Iran and six nations ended two days of “intense” and difficult nuclear talks in Baghdad late Thursday with no breakthroughs but a plan to meet again in Moscow next month, I report with Barbara Slavin on the front page:

The chief international negotiator, EU High Rep Catherine Ashton, announced that another meeting would be held in Moscow, with delegations arriving June 17 and meeting June 18-19. She described the two days of discussions with the Iranians in Baghdad as “very intense and detailed.”

American and European diplomats also offered more insight into their theory that their leverage in the negotiations will increase as new sanctions move forward–not by offering Iran a way to avert them.

“Maximum pressure is not yet being felt in Iran,” a senior American diplomat told a group of journalists at the conclusion of the Baghdad talks, on the condition of anonymity. European Union sanctions on Iranian oil and US sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, both due to be fully implemented in July, “increase leverage on the negotiation as it proceeds forward,” the official said.

“The Iranians don’t like it,” the diplomat continued. “They hope and would rather we not put additional sanctions on. Indeed they are not at all pleased that soon after Istanbul, the president [Barack Obama] signed a new executive order [sanctioning Iran for supplying technical assistance to Syria to repress dissidents]. We heard about that.”

Notably, the P5+1 did not make public the detailed package of inducements for a confidence building measure under which Iran would curb its 20% enrichment, as western diplomats indicated earlier in the week they planned to do. Perhaps a sign they may be prepared to sweeten the deal some ahead of the next meeting in Moscow next month, given how coldly it was received by the Iranians.

That’s how negotiations work, perhaps.

Lead American envoy to the talks, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, travels from Amman Jordan today to Israel to consult with Israeli leaders about the talks. She may travel on to Saudi Arabia after that or return to Washington.

Read our full piece here.


Iran Nuclear Talks Wrap Up on Positive Note

Two days of “intense” nuclear talks with Iran ended in Baghdad Thursday with a plan that the parties should meet again in Moscow next month.

Chief international negotiator catherine Ashton announced the next meeting would be held June 18-19th. She described the past two days of discussions with the Iranians in Baghdad as “very intense and detailed.”

“In line with our agreement in Istanbul, the E3+3 laid out clear proposals to address the Iranian nuclear issue and in particular, all aspects of 20 percent enrichment,” Ashton said.

A senior US official said Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, and US Undersecretary of State, Wendy Sherman, chatted a few minutes informally Thursday night. “At  the end of today’s plenary, Dr. Jalili approached [Sherman] to chat for a minute or two.”

“There’s a recognition that we are beginning to understand and communicate and talk with each other,” the US official said. “What took some effort today was to get to place where understood some common ground, and our differences.”

“Even given significant differences, there is and this is the important part, common ground,” between the P5+1 and Iran, the senior US administration official said. “There is agreement to deal with all aspects of 20 percent.”

The Iranians had put forward a five-point plan, that included a request to recognize their right to 3.5 percent uranium, Ashton said.

Iran’s Currency Still Falling

My colleague Barbara Slavin reports:

Iran’s gyrating currency dropped again against the dollar Thursday as optimism over a swift resolution of Iran’s nuclear crisis receded.

With negotiators reporting a “difficult day” as they traded proposals on Wednesday in Baghdad, the rial hit 17,700 to the dollar on the unofficial market in Tehran – a quick and sharp devaluation from about 16,000 earlier in the week.

The gap between the official rate of 12,000 to the dollar and the unofficial rate has waxed and waned in accordance with Iranian perceptions of the crisis.

Iran’s main goal is to stave off even more economic sanctions due to come into effect July 1. But the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany are so far not offering to postpone those sanctions. They are insisting that Iran halt production of uranium enrichment to 20 percent U-235. In return, Iran has been offered fuel for a reactor that makes medical isotopes, safety upgrades to that reactor and other facilities and spare parts for Iran’s aged civilian jetliners.

Iran talks resume in Baghdad after “difficult” first day

Baghdad_Western negotiators seemed somewhat rattled after what they acknowledged was a rough day of talks with Iran over a proposed confidence building measure.

“It has been a difficult day, but not a bad one,” a senior U.S. administration official told journalists on condition of anonymity after talks in Baghdad Wednesday stretched late into the night. “We discussed difficult issues.”

The talks resumed for a second day Thursday, and have gone on longer than anticipated, as international negotiators tried to salvage at least agreement on another meeting date in the near term.

American and European diplomats said they fully expected that the talks in Baghdad would be difficult, as the teams get down to the tough issues of what the international community would be prepared to offer in exchange for Iran curbing some of its most sensitive nuclear work, including its 20% uranium enrichment activities.

But they did not seem to fully anticipate the degree to which the Iranians thought the specific P5+1 package laid out in the closed-door talks Wednesday differed from their understanding of what might be on the table, specifically by offering no prospect for sanctions relief except the provision of civilian aircraft spare parts. (The Iranians did not receive the package in writing, they said, presumably because the P5+1 hasn’t yet made it public.)

Western diplomats have suggested that European Union sanctions on Iran’s oil exports will go ahead July 1 even if Iran gives up its 20% enrichment, sends out its 20% stockpile and closes the fortified Fordo enrichment facility.

“What we heard in Istanbul was more interesting,” a member of the Iranian diplomatic delegation told Reuters.

“We believe the reason (the powers) are not able to reach a result is America,” he said. “(They) came to Baghdad without a clear mandate so we think the atmosphere is difficult.”

“I would have expected nothing else but for the Iranians to say the package is unbalanced,” the senior U.S. administration official said.

“It is not accurate to say there are no sanctions measures put on the table,” the official said, apparently referring to the airplane parts. “We tried to be responsive” to our understanding of what the Iranians may be interested in. Apparently, the package did not fulfill any of those expectations.

“We are at the beginning of the process, not the end of it,” the official said.

The Iranian delegation was meeting with the P5+1 negotiators for a second time Thursday midday.

The meeting is expected to conclude sometime later Thursday afternoon.


A peek at the Baghdad negotiating table

Here is a photo by Iran’s IRNA news agency of the Iran nuclear talks in Baghdad today.

It’s a bit hard to see. But notice which nations’ delegations are sitting directly across from each other: the United States’ lead negotiator Wendy Sherman, far left, sits across from Iran’s lead negotiator, Saeed Jalili (far right).

It was an Iranian photo editor who pointed out to me that Sherman and Jalili sit/are seated directly across from each other.

Here’s a photo, below, of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team at the talks today. Lead negotiator Jalili is the third from the right; his deputy Ali Bagheri is next to him, third from left.

(Photos: IRNA).