Iran nuclear negotiator responds to Obama on Persian poet

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US and Iranian leaders often seem to be talking past each other. But President Obama’s Persian New Year’s message drew rare acknowledgement from Iran’s top negotiator at nuclear talks in Kazakhstan this past weekend. What prompted Saeed Jalili’s remarks were not the usual issues of contention in stalemated nuclear talks–20% enrichment and buried bunkers–but poetry; specifically, Obama’s citation in his March 16 Nowruz message of a couple lines of poetry from the 14th century Persian poet Hafez.

“As you gather with family and friends this Nowruz, many of you will turn to the poet Hafez who wrote: ‘Plant the tree of friendship that bears the fruit of fulfillment; uproot the sapling of enmity that bears endless suffering,” Obama said in the videotaped Nowruz message, which stressed his continuing preference to peacefully resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, and urged Iran’s leaders to take steps to reduce tensions and accept a “practical solution.”

Jalili–speaking at an April 6 press conference after two days of intense but inconclusive talks with six world powers that failed to produce much headway–said the message of the 700 year old poem cited by Obama is that he should ease sanctions on Iran if he wants to reduce enmity between the two countries. Continue reading

‘Robust’ Iran nuclear talks reveal gulf between sides

Almaty, Kazakhstan__ Iran and six world powers remained far apart at the conclusion of two days of talks here without agreeing to meet again, but American and European diplomats said the Iranians had engaged more deeply than ever before on the details of a potential nuclear compromise.

“Two days of talks just concluded that were indeed quite substantive,” a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists at the conclusion of talks Saturday. “Each session involved a robust discussion … [that was] more natural and free-flowing than past talks.”

“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” the US diplomat said. “There was intensive dialogue on key issues at the core of [the proposed confidence building measure.]. Both sides came away with better understanding of each others’ positions.”

Among the interchanges described, was a 30-45 minute back and forth between the lead US negotiator at the talks, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Iran’s lead negotiator Saeed Jalili, in which Sherman asked Jalili a series of specific questions and he responded.

In meetings Saturday, Iranian negotiators apparently said what Iran would require in exchange for suspending 20% enrichment was the lifting of all unilateral sanctions, an Iran analyst attending the talks said was his understanding, based on conversations on the side-lines of the talks with members of the Iranian team.

The Iranian position is so far apart from where the P5+1 proposal is, international negotiators seemed taken aback. The intensive discussions over the past two days revealed a “significant gulf” between the two sides, the US official said.

“Lost in translation,” the Iran analyst described Iran’s positioning to Al-Monitor, saying he fears it could appear not as hard bargaining, but an expectations gap that may be harder to close.

American and European diplomats said they are committed to the diplomatic process, but did not agree to the Iranian request to schedule new talks yet, in part to signal Iran that it had not come to Almaty with what they considered a sufficiently concrete response to their revised proposal. The updated international offer eased some previous demands that Iran totally shut the Fordo enrichment facility but asked it suspend operations there, and would allow Iran to keep enough 20% fuel for the country’s domestic medical needs. It also offered some modest sanctions relief on trade in gold and precious metals and petrochemical sales.

We “had long and intensive discussions on the issues,” during which “it became clear that the positions of the E3+3 and Iran remain far apart on the substance,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said at a press briefing at the conclusion of talks here Saturday.

“We have therefore agreed that all sides will go back to capitals to evaluate where we stand in the process,” Ashton continued, saying she will call her Iranian counterpart Jalili soon to “see how to go forward.”

Iranian negotiators arrived in Almaty this week taking a hard line, calling for an endgame road-map that would give it assurances of the recognition of the right to enrich and the lifting of sanctions before it would move on a short-term confidence building measure focused on curbing 20% enrichment. But western negotiators pushed back, saying they were puzzled and disappointed in the “minimal” Iranian presentation. Iran then pivoted over the next 36 hours to arguing for a better deal, sources said.

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Setback at Iran nuclear talks

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Almaty, Kazakhstan__Western diplomats on Friday expressed initial dismay after listening to Iranian negotiators present their response to a revised international nuclear proposal. But after further meetings Friday, western negotiators said the talks had become more substantive, though the sides remained some ways apart.

“We are somewhat puzzled by the Iranians’ characterisation of what they presented,” a western official told journalists after a three hour meeting here between diplomats from Iran and six world powers.

Rather than the “clear and concrete” response the six powers had been seeking, the Iranian nuclear negotiating team offered “some interesting, but not fully explained, general comments on our ideas,” the western official continued.

“It was mainly a reworking of what they said in Moscow,” the official said, referring to a powerpoint on Iran’s proposed framework for negotiations that Tehran envoys presented in Moscow last June.

Earlier Friday, Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri, in a mid-day press conference, said Iran had presented a “comprehensive proposal” to international negotiators that stressed the process and endgame, beyond short-term confidence-building steps.

The Islamic Republic of Iran “proposed a practical method to implement a Moscow plan in a smaller scale, and stressed that actions and so-called confidence building measures must be considered as part of a larger, more comprehensive plan,” Bagheri, speaking through a translator, said at a second press conference Friday evening.

But western diplomats expressed initial puzzlement at what they perceived as Iran’s apparant return to debating modalities for negotiations, rather than haggling over specific steps discussed at two recent rounds of talks this year.

“We had a long and substantial discussion on the issues, but we remain a long way apart on the substance,” a western official said at the conclusion of the first day of talks Friday. “We are now evaluating the situation and will meet again tomorrow.”

Diplomats from Iran, the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the EU are expected to meet again here on Saturday. Iran also held a series of bilateral meetings Friday evening, including with the Russians, Germany, and UK. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is expected to meet with Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili Saturday morning before plenary talks get underway.

Another meeting ‘to narrow gaps’ will possibly be agreed before delegations depart, one official suggested, although it was not yet clear at what level it would be held.

Western diplomats notably sent out the SOS about how things were going downhill early in the first day of the expected two-day talks in an apparent bid to try to salvage seeming progress made in two recent rounds of talks. Iran seeks, before it would agree to suspend its 20% enrichment, to get assurances on a path that will result in recognition of its right to enrich and broader sanctions relief. Western diplomats say Iran should take the first step in a confidence building measure.

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P5+1 seeks ‘clear and concrete’ response from Iran in Almaty

20130404-101537.jpgAlmaty, Kazakhstan__ Western diplomats said Thursday they hope Iran comes here with a “clear and concrete” response to a revised international proposal aimed at curbing Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work.

“What would be most helpful is for Iran to give us concrete responses, what they think they’re willing to do on this proposal, what gives them concerns, …[to] get into a real and substantive negotiation,” a senior US administration official told journalists in a conference late Wednesday ahead of boarding a flight to Kazakhstan. “I’m hopeful that they will do that.”

“We would of course like them to come and say, ‘We accept the proposal. Now let’s work out the details,'” the American official continued. “But that’s not usually the way these things work. … That’s why you’re in a negotiation to begin with.”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton “calls upon Iran to give a clear and concrete answer to the E3/EU+3’s Almaty proposal,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for Ashton, said Thursday.

Diplomats from Iran and six world powers are gathering here ahead of the third set of nuclear talks in the past five weeks, which are due to get underway Friday. International negotiators presented a revised international proposal at high level talks held in Almaty in February, and then held technical talks in Istanbul last month.

The Iranian negotiating team is expected on Friday to present a response to the latest P5+1 proposal, that includes Iran’s suggested steps, an Iranian source suggested Thursday. Iran’s counter proposal will aim “to test” western intentions, he said.

“We think our talks tomorrow can go forward with one word,” Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said in a talk to Kazakh university students Wednesday. “That is the acceptance of the rights of Iran, particularly the right of enrichment.”

Striking a familiar theme, Jalili also criticized nuclear armed world powers that seek to limit other countries’ nuclear rights. “No country should have a nuclear weapon,” Jalili said.

Despite the tough tone, western diplomats said Iranian technical experts were particularly engaged and focused on substantive details at technical talks held in Istanbul March 18th that went on for twelve hours. The Iranian technical team was not authorized to negotiate, however, the American diplomat said, but rather to seek more information and clarification on the international proposal.

The Iranian team, in Istanbul, indicated Tehran was considering an international request to suspend 20% enrichment for six months, and to continue converting Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium to oxide for medical use, a diplomatic source told Al-Monitor last month. However, the Iranian team expressed objections to other elements in the international proposal, the diplomat said. Among them: suspending other operations at the Fordo facility except 20% enrichment, shipping out its 20% stockpile, and increased IAEA inspections.

Iranian diplomats have also said that while they consider the revised international proposal an improvement from one presented in Baghdad last year, they still find it “imbalanced” between its demands and the incentives it offers.

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Former Obama nuclear advisor Samore: Iran might take deal after June polls

Expectations are low for an Iran nuclear deal before Iranian presidential elections in June, former White House nuclear advisor Gary Samore told the Brookings Institution Monday. After that, it’s possible Iran might agree to a deal on curbing its 20% enrichment, or it will face increasing economic sanctions, Samore said.

“I think it’s possible Iran could decide after the presidential elections to accept the small deal on the table now,” Samore, who served as President Obama’s ‘WMD czar’ until January, told the panel on Iran negotiations Monday.

From Iran’s standpoint, “it’s a good deal,” Samore, now executive director of the Harvard Belfer Center, continued. “If it is looking at ways to create a respite” from economic sanctions, “what’s on offer might do that.”

The panel on negotiating with Iran comes as diplomats from Iran and six world powers return to Almaty, Kazakhstan later this week for the second round of nuclear talks in the past five weeks.

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