Iran nuclear talks still up in the air

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There’s still no agreement on a new meeting between Iran and six world powers, a western diplomat said Friday.

“No change. Contacts are ongoing,” a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told the Back Channel Friday.

As to what accounts for the hold up, a former Iran nuclear negotiator said Iran had been seeking to learn what was in the updated P5+1 package in advance of the meeting, but been refused. “Tehran was very much afraid that again [it] would receive a weak package similar to previous ones, talks would fail, and as always Tehran would be blamed,” Hossein Mousavian told the Back Channel Thursday.

But western officials might be forgiven for wondering if Iran may just be giving them the run-around. And some Iranian analysts acknowledge that may not be too far off the mark, though they think Iran will eventually agree to a meeting date.

“Why rush into talks that everyone agrees will not get them anything substantial,” Hossein Shahbazi, a US-based Iran analyst, translated Iranian thinking to the Back Channel Friday.

From Tehran’s perspective, the “Iranians are not actually playing a terribly bad game now,” Shahbazi continued. They don’t think military action is in the offing. And though Congress continues to pile on sanctions, Iran believes they can withstand them for some time, he said.

Ultimately, “the talks will take place, as Iran doesn’t want to be blamed for their failure,” Shahbazi said. “But, addressing Iran’s important need for sanctions relief will be necessary for having Iranians to act constructively towards the talks going forward.”

Several national security experts have been urging the Obama administration to pursue bolder diplomacy on Iran, and offer more generous sanctions relief in exchange for greater Iranian transparency and monitoring.

However, if a 20% deal can’t be reached in the next few months, and if Iran continues to grow its 20% stockpile, President Obama is likely to come under increasing  pressure to demonstrate to Iran that the threat of force is credible.

Columbia University scholar Robert Jervis, who analyzed coercive diplomacy options in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, said while negotiating with Iran is incredibly difficult, there are some grounds to believe an interim nuclear deal is achievable.

“What we want from the Iranians is what they say they want,” Jervis told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. “The Iranian say, ‘we do not want a bomb.’  And what we say is… we want assurances, openness and assurances” that Iran is not producing a bomb.

“It’s not Jerusalem,” he added, referring to both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute holding positions that are hard to reconcile with the other. Continue reading

Obama urged to step up diplomacy on Iran


A growing chorus of national security experts from across the political spectrum is urging President Obama to pursue bolder diplomacy with Iran, including offering Iran a nuclear deal that would include sanctions relief.

“We know Iran is prepared to make a deal on 20% enrichment,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran advisor, said at a Brookings Institution foreign policy panel Thursday. “It’s low-hanging fruit. … Now is the time to get that deal.”

But getting it, she adds, will require President Obama to “elevate and intensify the diplomatic dialogue,” as well as offer some sanctions relief.

“The incentives must be more persuasive than the paltry offers the United States has made to date, and at least as inventive as the sanctions themselves have proven,“ Maloney wrote in a “memo to the president” published Thursday by the Brookings Institution.

The calls on President Obama to boost his Iran diplomatic game come at a paradoxical moment: Iran diplomacy is stuck, but a deal is in sight. There's increasingly broad consensus on the terms of an interim nuclear deal that many observers believe could be had. And the recently reelected US president, enjoying higher approval numbers going into his second term than throughout much of his first, is widely perceived to have the political space to offer more carrots if it would clinch a deal.

The uncertainty is Iran. Western negotiators are discouraged by the recent difficulty in getting Iran to even agree on the date and venue for resumed nuclear talks with the P5+1. Though consultations continue, no agreement on a new meeting date had been firmed up as of Thursday, American and European diplomats said.

“Tehran was asking [the] P5+1 about their new package prior to meeting,” former Iran nuclear negotiator Hossein Moussavian told the Back Channel Thursday. The “P5+1 was not ready to reveal [it] before the meeting. Tehran was very much afraid that again [it] would receive a weak package similar to previous ones, talks would fail and as always Tehran would be blamed.”

Perhaps defensive about their perceived stalling on new talks, Iranian officials signaled they were trying to set the agenda for the new meeting. “Iran wants the agenda for a new round of nuclear talks to refer explicitly to sanctions relief and what it views as its right to enrich uranium,” Barbara Slavin reported for Al-Monitor Jan. 14th.

“I think we sometimes read too much into Iranian foot dragging,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Back Channel. “Anyone who’s spent time in Tehran traffic or dealt with Iranian government agencies knows that efficiency and promptness are in short supply, especially on such a sensitive issue in which there may not exist an internal consensus.”

Reflecting the discouragement of American officials at the delay, he added: “When interested parties can’t agree on a date or location for a negotiation, it doesn’t portend well for the negotiation itself.”

That familiar and frustrating dynamic is in part what is driving a growing number of diplomats and policy analysts to urge Obama to take a less politically cautious approach, by signaling Iran that the United States is prepared to sweeten the deal, in return for greater Iranian transparency and inspections.

Two dozen former diplomats and experts, including former ambassadors Tom Pickering and James Dobbins, urged Obama “to direct your team vigorously to pursue serious, sustained negotiations with the Iranian government on an arrangement that guards against a nuclear-armed Iran,” in a Dec. 20th letter, organized by the National Iranian American Council and the Arms Control Association.

“Iran has insisted on two benefits from a deal: sanctions relief and nuclear enrichment,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote at The Atlantic this week. “An agreement is more likely if these issues are addressed with a generous offer.”

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Iran media: Nuclear talks Jan 28-29

Catherine Ashton, Vice-President of the EC, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy participates at a meeting of the E3 + 3 on the Iranian nuclear issue.
Iran has tentatively agreed to resume nuclear talks with six world powers on January 28-29, at a location still to be decided, Iranian media reported Wednesday.

However, western negotiators did not confirm the report, saying consultations are ongoing.

“In the context of ongoing consultations to agree on a next round of talks between the E3+3 and Iran, DSG Helga Schmid and Dr. Ali Bagheri spoke on the phone on 14 January,” a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief told the Back Channel Wednesday. “Consultations to prepare a next round of talks are ongoing.”

“It is also possible that a final decision on the venue could lead to change in date,” Iran’s Student News Agency (ISNA) said.

Talks have been delayed by Iran haggling over the agenda for the next talks, Al Monitor reported this week. “Iran wants the agenda for a new round of nuclear talks to refer explicitly to sanctions relief and what it views as its right to enrich uranium,” Al Monitor’s Barbara Slavin wrote January 14.

“The E3+3 have repeatedly responded to the points made by Iran and have urged Iran to seriously address the concerns of the international community on the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme,” the statement from Ashton’s spokesperson continued.

The lead US envoy to the talks, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, was in the UK earlier this week for meetings with fellow G8 political directors, the State Department said.

Separately, Iran is hosting a senior team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Tehran Wednesday.

In anticipation of resumed nuclear negotiations, seven former Iranian parliamentarians called in an open letter to President Obama, the EU’s Ashton, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei this week for direct US-Iran negotiations and for broader concessions from both sides to achieve a compromise.

“At this juncture, we believe transparent and bilateral dialogue between the U.S. and Iranian governments regarding Iran’s nuclear program would be beneficial and effective,” . the seven former Majles members, including Seyed Aliakbar Mousavi, and Fatemeh both now living in the US, wrote.

“We therefore support such a discussion,” their letter continued. “By providing more guarantees in pursuit of a peaceful resolution to the conflict, the talks could create fertile ground for serious discussions on many outstanding and complicated problems between the two nations.”

Iran analysts said the letter is significant because it shows the wide consensus even among Iranian reformists on the terms of a viable compromise.

“The central gravity logically on this issue comes down to this issue: Iran has to be transparent and its rights have to be respected,” Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, said.

Update: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday the parties are still trying to firm up a late January date for talks, but it’s not finalized yet, Reuters reports.

(Photo: Diplomats from the UK, US, France, Germany, Russia, and China met with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and deputy Helga Schmid in Brussels in November. EEAS.)

Senators Schumer, Boxer say will vote for Hagel

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) said Tuesday that he will vote to confirm Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, after meeting with the former Nebraska Republican and receiving assurances on his positions on Iran and Israel. The endorsement from Schumer, the third ranking Democrat in the Senate who commands wide respect in the pro-Israel community, is likely to significantly ease Hagel’s path to Senate confirmation.

“In a meeting Monday, Senator Hagel spent approximately 90 minutes addressing my concerns one by one,” Schumer said in a statement Tuesday. “It was a very constructive session. Senator Hagel could not have been more forthcoming and sincere.”

“Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation,” Schumer continued, adding that he encourages his fellow Senate colleagues who shared such concerns to also support him.

Schumer’s public endorsement of Hagel came a day after Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California) also announced that she would confirm Hagel, after receiving detailed assurances from him on Israel, Iran, fair treatment of gay troops, and efforts to combat sexual assault in the military. Continue reading

Republican realists rap party over ‘preposterous’ Hagel attacks

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Maybe someday the GOP will thank President Obama for helping revive the party’s orphaned realist wing and making it more politically competitive.

A series of the party’s old guard realists—retired Gen. Colin Powell, Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage–took to the news shows Sunday to speak in favor of Chuck Hagel’s candidacy for Secretary of Defense, and more broadly to urge their party to take a more moderate approach on national security and social policies.

“I think what the Republican Party needs to do now is take a very hard look at itself and understand that the country has changed,” retired Gen. Colin Powell, who served as George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, said on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday. “The country is changing demographically, and if the Republican Party does not change along with that demographic, they’re going to be in trouble.”

The Republican Party has made a “significant shift to the right” in recent years, Powell said, describing himself as a “moderate but I’m still a Republican. … And until I voted for Mr. Obama twice, I had voted for seven straight Republican presidents.”

Powell, who chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf war, also praised Hagel as a “superbly qualified” candidate for Secretary of Defense. If confirmed, Hagel, a former two-term Republican Senator from Nebraska and twice decorated Vietnam war combat veteran, would be the first former enlisted soldier to serve as Pentagon chief.

Hagel “knows what war is and he will fight a war if it’s necessary, but he’s a guy who will do it with great deliberation and care,” Powell said.

Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations and former State Department policy planning chief in the George W. Bush administration, said Sunday it’s fair to question Hagel about his policy positions. But Haass but strongly defended Hagel from what he called “preposterous” smears by hawkish foes. Most notably, Elliott Abrams, a CFR senior fellow and former Bush Middle East advisor, claimed in a controversial interview with NPR this month that Hagel is an anti-Semite–a charge refuted by among others the Jewish community of Hagel’s home state of Nebraska.

“These are loaded words that are being cast about, and I think they’re simply beyond the pale,” Haass said on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

The Council on Foreign Relations had previously distanced itself from Abrams’ comments, telling the Back Channel in a Jan. 8th statement that the remarks don’t represent the views of the institution. But Haass’ rebuke on Sunday went further, calling the nature of Abrams’ attack on Hagel out of bounds.

“Where I think people are going over the line is with ad hominem attacks — questioning for example whether he’s an anti-Semite,” Haass said, adding “I’ve known Chuck Hagel for more 20 years. For what it’s worth, I think that’s preposterous.” Continue reading

Diplomats hoping for Iran nuclear talks in late January

Catherine Ashton, Vice-President of the EC, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy participates at a meeting of the E3 + 3 on the Iranian nuclear issue.
The latest on long anticipated P5+1 Iran talks: They are not happening next week, as western negotiators had been hoping.

A Western diplomat told the Back Channel Friday that efforts are now underway to  arrange a meeting at the end of the month, but cautioned that no date or venue had yet been agreed.

“Nothing confirmed,” a second, European official said Saturday.

An unnamed Russian official reportedly said Friday that nuclear negotiations would resume at the end of January in Istanbul. That followed  Russia’s lead negotiator Sergei Ryabkov criticizing the long pause in talks. Diplomats from the six world powers and Iran held three rounds of talks last spring and summer. Expectation that talks would resume shortly after the US presidential elections in November have not materialized, however, as in recent weeks Iran has not responded to at least two dates proposed by the six parties. “This becomes unclear and sends a wrong signal,” Ryabkov was cited by Itar-Tass Jan. 9.

American officials have interpreted the Iranian delay in scheduling talks to date as a potentially inauspicious sign of continued dysfunction or indecisiveness in Tehran, diplomatic sources told the Back Channel. Continue reading

Roundup: Nebraska Jews defend Hagel, Salehi not running

(Photo: the Information Center of Kurdistan in Paris, where three Kurdish women were found shot dead, Jan. 11, 2013. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann.)

 

Iran seen stalling on date for nuclear talks

Western diplomats are not encouraged–if not much surprised–by signs Iran is playing games in scheduling a new date for nuclear talks.

Iran doesn't seem ready to negotiate, or else is “playing for time,” one US administration official told the Back Channel over the weekend.

International negotiators have been waiting for Iran to agree on a date for a new round of talks with six world powers–possibly as soon as next week.

“We’re actively working on getting agreement on a date and venue,” a senior western official told the Back Channel Wednesday. “Stay tuned.”

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, speaking in India last week, said he expected talks between Iran and the P5+1 to be scheduled some time this month.

But as of Tuesday, Iran had not settled on a date.

Western diplomats fear if the Iranians don’t RSVP very soon, it will be logistically difficult to put together a meeting for next week.

American officials have interpreted the Iranian delay in scheduling talks to date as a potentially inauspicious sign of continued dysfunction or indecisiveness in Tehran, diplomatic sources tell the Back Channel.

American negotiators “are ready, if Iran says yes, to work through with them a step by step deal,” a Washington non-proliferation expert told the Back Channel Tuesday. “They want to be able to make a deal. And a major concern is whether Iran is capable of making a deal, whether the Supreme Leader is capable of even deciding that he wants to make a deal. That is where their concern is.” Continue reading

Sen. Nelson: Netanyahu raised no concerns about Hagel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised no concerns about President Obama’s choice of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, US Senator Bill Nelson said in Israel Tuesday.

Nelson, a Florida Democrat who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said “that Hagel has a record of support for Israel” and he will vote to confirm him, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Nelson spoke on a visit to Israel following meetings Tuesday with Israeli leaders and Israeli intelligence officials about Iran’s nuclear program.

So far, several Democrats on the armed services panel have indicated they plan to back Hagel’s confirmation, including its chair, Carl Levin of Michigan, Jack Reed of Rhode Island—a close Hagel friend—and now Nelson.

Several Republicans have said they have strong concerns about the former two term Nebraska Republican and decorated Vietnam combat veteran. Among them, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the armed services panel; David Vitter (Louisiana), Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), and Texas’ junior Senator Ted Cruz.

Both former Defense Secretary Bob Gates and ret. Gen. Colin Powell, with wide bipartisan support, issued statements strongly endorsing Hagel for Secretary of Defense on Monday.

Meantime, the Council on Foreign Relations told Al Monitor Tuesday that controversial accusations made by its senior fellow Elliott Abrams in an interview Monday did not represent the views of the institution.

Abrams, the former Bush White House Middle East advisor, called Hagel an anti Semite in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered. The accusation was widely lambasted on social media sites after the interview aired. Asked by Al-Monitor what evidence he has to support his accusation, Abrams did not respond.

Abrams’ wife Rachel Abrams is a founding board member of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a Bill Kristol–led, GOP group at the center of the anti-Hagel campaign. ECI previously ran TV ads against President Obama’s 2012 reelection.

“As you may know, the Council on Foreign Relations takes no institutional position on matters of policy,” CFR’s vice president for global communications and media relations Lisa Shields told Al-Monitor by email Tuesday. “The views expressed by our more than seventy experts, who reflect a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives, are theirs only.”

(Photo: Democratic Senator Bill Nelson during a debate October 17, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Joe Skipper.)

Opposition to Hagel may be softening


As President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense Monday, opposition to the choice appeared to be receding somewhat.

“Chuck knows war is not an abstraction,” Obama said in a ceremony in the White House East Room. “He understands that sending young American to fight and bleed in the dirt and the mud is something we only do when absolutely necessary.”

Several groups and political leaders said Monday they would not formally oppose the choice, though some admitted to being lukewarm. Among them, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League, and former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who earlier said he opposed the choice. Continue reading