Diplomat says P5+1 divided over draft Iran accord

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Geneva__ Iran and world powers were supposed to resume ministerial level talks here Saturday morning but the western powers in the P5+1 are divided and were meeting among themselves, a senior diplomat involved in the talks told al-Monitor in an interview Saturday.

“It is obvious, there are serious differences” among the P5+1, the senior diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said. “We were supposed to restart negotiations at 8:30am, but the western side is divided.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry was supposed to resume meetings with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Saturday morning after a five hour meeting Friday that diplomats described as productive. But instead, the State Department said Saturday that Kerry would first meet with Ashton and three European counterparts, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Ashton was then scheduled to meet with Fabius and Zarif.

“In fact, the French are the big upset in the way of an agreement,” the senior diplomat said, on condition his name or nationality not be named.

He said there is a joint P5+1 draft text of a framework agreement the parties have been working on. Good progress was being made, including in the five hour trilateral meeting between Kerry, Zarif and Ashton Friday.

But the French say it is not our text, the diplomat said, a point which Fabius himself subsequently confirmed.

“There is an initial text that we do not accept,” Fabius told France’s Inter radio Saturday morning, according to a translation provided by a French reporter here. “There are several points that we are not satisfied with,” concerning the Arak heavy water facility and Iran’s stockpiles of 20% uranium. “How can we go down to 5% enrichment that is less dangerous. If those questions will no be addressed it will not be possible [to reach agreement]. I wants a deal but we have to be careful not to be played for fools.”

“The question of the Iranian nuclear issue is very important for international security,” Fabius told journalists here Saturday after leaving a meeting with Ashton, Kerry and his European counterparts. “But there are still the important points on which we have to work. I still hope there will be an agreement, but there are still things we have to” resolve.

France’s concerns were reported to center on wanting Iran to halt work on the Arak heavy water facility during the negotiations, as well as on Iran’s stockpile of 20% uranium.

Another P5+1 diplomat told Al-Monitor Saturday that no one is telling the diplomats here what is going on, describing the situation as ‘outrageous.’

Asked about the complaints of a chaotic situation, a spokesperson for Ashton said all of the parties here are working very hard and are making progress.

“The E3+3 continues to work together intensively to make progress on the Iranian nuclear file,” Michael Mann said. “There are a number of meetings going on. And regular debriefings. ”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived here Saturday around 11am to join the talks. He decided to come only late Friday, concerned about an unspecified hitch that had developed in the talks in the afternoon, another diplomat said late Friday.

The Chinese foreign minister is also expected to arrive later Saturday afternoon, reports citing Chinese state radio said.

After talks with Kerry and the Europeans Saturday morning, Kerry, Zarif and Ashton were to resume trilateral talks. It’s still unclear if an agreement will be reached here at this meeting which has extended into a third day, or if talks to sign a possible framework deal will require a subsequent meeting or meetings.

(Photo of US Secretary of State John Kerry, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and his deputies Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht-Ravanchi, by Fars News. Also pictured, US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and nonproliferation James Timbie; and Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid.)

Kerry and Iran’s Zarif meet on nuclear accord, as talks extended

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Geneva __ Talks on a prospective Iran nuclear accord will be extended for at least a third day after US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met here for almost five hours Friday with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The negotiations were productive, but there is much work still to be done, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi said as his delegation returned to the diplomats’ hotel just before midnight after the meeting.

There are only a few issues outstanding, but they are significant, another member of the Iranian delegation said.

Neither Kerry nor Ashton said anything upon their return from the meeting.

Talks are set to continue here on Saturday at 8:30am, Iranian diplomats said.

It’s unclear if a formal agreement will be signed here this weekend, but there was still some sense of expectation that it could happen, as well as signs that progress was being made on the substance of a prospective deal, for the first time in years.

“I want to emphasize there is not an agreement at this point in time, but the P51 is working hard,” Kerry said upon his arrival in Geneva Friday. “We hope to try to narrow those differences, but I don’t think anybody should mistake that there are some important gaps that have to be closed.”

As talks appeared to be making rapid progress Thursday, Kerry decided to fly here from Israel, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vehemently denounced the prospective deal as a historical mistake that would reward Iran for making few concessions. US President Obama called Netanyahu Friday to reiterate his commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, as well as his preference to try to peacefully resolve the issue.

Foreign Ministers from France, Britain and Germany also flew to Geneva Friday, and held consultations with Ashton, before she hosted the five-hour trilateral meeting with Kerry, Zarif and their teams at the EU mission here. Political directors from the six powers seemed to be holding simultaneous meetings back at the hotel.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov decided only late Friday that he should come–apparently related to a crisis or roadblock in the talks that came up in thr afternoon, a diplomat said –and is expected to arrive in Geneva Saturday morning. The diplomat indicated that there are intense negotiations underway on the draft text of a prospective accord, involving parties submitting amendments and revisions. In Russia’s opinion, he said, some sides–he implied the U.S.–were making mistakes, which he declined to clarify.

China’s deputy foreign minister is also expected to arrive here Saturday, reports said. “We are working very hard,” a member of China’s negotiating team said Friday.

Iranian and western diplomats have said they hope to reach a framework accord that would seek to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program in two phases. In the first phase, Iran would agree to suspend certain of its nuclear activities–such as 20% enrichment and the installation of more centrifuges–and accept more verification and monitoring, probably for six months, in exchange for limited sanctions relief. By halting the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program, a senior US administration official explained in a background briefing on the eve of talks Wednesday, that would give time and space for the P5+1 and Iran to try to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement that could constrain Iran’s enrichment program and implement mechanisms to verify that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons, in exchange for the lifting of major oil and banking sanctions.

But Iran has made clear that recognition of what it sees as its right as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty to domestically enrich nuclear fuel be part of any end state deal, while some western powers hesitate to grant Iran such upfront permission. Thus working out a framework agreement that seeks to lay out both a first step and end state deal at the same time is complex, even among negotiators of good will.

Separately, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced Friday that IAEA director general Yukiya Amano will travel to Iran on Monday (Nov. 11), his first visit in over two years.

Kerry is likely to stay in Geneva until Sunday, officials suggested. He will then travel to Abu Dhabi, before returning to the United States, but has had to cancel previously planned stops in Algeria and Morocco, the State Department said.

Iran FM Zarif ‘Hopeful’ on Nuclear Agreement; Kerry to join talks

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Geneva__ Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said his team will draft the text of a framework agreement with representatives of six world powers, the P5+1, on Friday as negotiations seemed to gather such pace that there was talk that an agreement could even be signed on Friday or Saturday. Amid signs of rapid progress, US Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Geneva Friday to join the talks, a US official said.

“Secretary Kerry will travel to Geneva, Switzerland on Friday at the invitation of EU High Representative Ashton in an effort to help narrow differences in negotiations,” a senior State Department official told Al-Monitor late Thursday.

“We are talking about a framework agreement that includes three steps: objectives, end game, and a first step,” Zarif told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, one of a series he gave in his Geneva hotel at the conclusion of the first day of a new round of nuclear talks that were stunning for their sense of momentum after years of no progress.

“If there is political will, it is not so difficult,” Zarif said. “We are hopeful we can do it. My preference is to be able to move forward quickly.”

“We have to see,” he said. “It’s too early to judge.”

Zarif said significant progress on the outlines of a framework deal had been made at meetings over the past month, including at technical talks in Vienna last week. “In the course of the past three weeks…the ingredients of each step have been more clearly defined,” Zarif said.

“Maybe we are sill at the recipe stage,” he said, regarding what reciprocal steps the six powers might offer Iran in exchange for Iranian steps to restrain its nuclear program in the first phase of an envisioned two-step deal. “We know the ingredients, and the right amount of each ingredient in the recipe.”

On Thursday, Zarif had breakfast with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, then headed the Iranian delegation at a brisk, 45-minute plenary meeting with diplomats from the P5+1. Then the Iranian team, headed by Zarif’s deputy Abbas Araghchi, proceeded to hold four, one-hour meetings, first with three European powers, then with the Russians, then with the U.S. team, led by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and then with the Chinese.

“We had a good plenary,” in which all the delegations expressed the desire “to find common ground in order to move forward,” Zarif said. “Then we had rather long bilateral discussions.”

Next comes “starting serious draft writing,” Zarif said. “We know the challenge: just putting on paper all these discussions…We will already have made good progress. Whether it will be enough to sign a joint communique in the afternoon, it all depends on how much progress” is made Friday.

Asked if the sense of momentum towards a framework deal after years of little or no progress was an illusion, Zarif said he didn’t think so, but cautioned there were still many potential obstacles.

“I think we’re on the right track,” he said. “It’s a very difficult stage we are in–trying to put …that which was said [sometimes] informally [in meetings] on paper, to have consensus.”

“We should not prejudge the outcome,” Zarif said. “The general trend is positive.”

An hour or so after Zarif spoke Thursday, lead US negotiator Wendy Sherman, returning to the diplomats’ Geneva hotel, had an impromptu tete a tete with Iranian deputy foreign minister Araghchi, after encountering him in front of the elevator. The two diplomats spoke for a few minutes in a hallway off the lobby, before Sherrman went up.

Araghchi earlier told Al-Monitor in a brief interview that his team’s one hour meeting with Sherman and the US negotiating team Thursday was “very useful and productive.”

A U.S. official, speaking not for attribution Thursday, told Al-Monitor that from the U.S. perspective, the talks made real headway in the afternoon meetings.

(Top Photo: Lead US Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, arrives for Iran nuclear talks at the United Nations in Geneva Thursday November 7, 2013, accompanied by her deputy and veteran State Department arms control advisor James Timbie. Credit: Derrick Bridiers, US Mission in Geneva Flickr account. Bottom photo: US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman talks with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi at the Geneva Intercontinental Hotel after an impromptu meeting in front of the elevators Thursday evening November 7, 2013, as negotiations towards a framework deal seemed to be making headway. By ISNA.)

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US sees 2-phase Iran nuclear deal

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Geneva__ The United States and five world powers are looking to reach agreement on the first phase of a two-part nuclear deal with Iran, that would halt the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program while negotiations on a comprehensive final deal take place, a senior US official said here Wednesday.

“The first step understanding would put time on the clock to negotiate a final agreement that addresses all of our concerns,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists here Wednesday on the eve of two days of nuclear talks. “It’s crucial we have this phase of this agreement without Iran’s nuclear program marching forward.”

The US official argued forcefully against Congress implementing new sanctions at this time, saying US experts believe new sanctions “would be harmful to…and undermine” the negotiating process. “We all have an obligation not to take that risk.”

“For the first time, Iran appears to be committed to moving this negotiating process forward quickly,” the official added. “That’s a key shift… For the first time, we do not see them using the negotiating process to buy time.”

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking in Paris Tuesday, said there was still a lot of work to be done, but saw the potential to at least make meaningful progress at the Geneva talks–the second such round in three weeks.

“I believe it is even possible to reach that agreement this week,” Zarif told France24 Tuesday, adding that If “we don’t make a breakthrough at this round, it’s not a disaster.”

“We hope to make concrete progress in the upcoming round,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said here Wednesday. “The nuclear talks are complex and have entered a serious phase.”

The American official declined to go into specifics on the elements of a prospective phase one agreement, but said it should address levels of enrichment, stockpiles, facilities, verification and monitoring. US officials have said the six will not dismantle the “architecture” of major oil and banking sanctions in the interim step, but presumably in a broader end state deal.

“In response to a first step that halts their program, we are prepared to offer limited, targeted and reversible sanctions relief,” the U.S. official said. “We are not talking about removing the core architecture [of the sanctions regime] in the first step. And if Iran does not live up to its agreement, or a comprehensive deal is not finalized, any economic relief offered can be reversed.”

Any interim deal would likely include Iran suspending 20% enrichment. Other possible elements include halting the installation of more centrifuges, and suspending work towards bringing online the Arak heavy water reactor, in exchange for “targeted and reversible” sanctions relief, including the release of some frozen Iranian hard currency assets held in banks abroad, unconfirmed reports have suggested.

Regarding Iran’s demand that it get recognition of the right to enrich in any end state deal, the US official didn’t rule out a deal that permitted Iran to have domestic enrichment, but said the US doesn’t recognize any country’s inherent right to enrich. President Obama has repeatedly expressed support for Iran having a peaceful civilian nuclear energy program.

The US official wouldn’t say whether she expected a first step agreement to be reached at this round of talks in Geneva Nov. 7-8th, but suggested the outline of the first step of a deal may be within reach.

“I do see the potential outlines of a first step,” the official said. “I do think it can be written on a piece of paper–probably more than one. I hope sooner rather than later. I would like to stop Iran’s program from advancing further.”

Negotiators seek progress at Iran nuclear talks

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Geneva__ Negotiators from Iran and six world powers said they were looking to make progress towards a nuclear deal at a new round of high-level talks due to get underway here Thursday.

“We hope to make concrete progress in the upcoming round,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said here Wednesday.

“The nuclear talks are complex and have entered a serious phase,” Mann said. Both sides “have agreed to keep the talks confidential in order to focus on the substance.”

“I believe there is a lot of work to be done,” Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told France 24 during a visit to Paris Tuesday. “We have made some progress, but there is a great deal of mistrust in Iran concerning the attitude, behavior and approach of some members of the P5+1.”

“I believe it is even possible to reach that agreement this week,” Zarif said, adding, however, that If “we don’t make a breakthrough at this round, it’s not a disaster.”

US officials, citing the seriousness of the new Iranian team and prospects for progress, have urged Congress to hold off on new Iran sanctions through the end of the year, arguing that a pause could help give momentum to intensified negotiations. In meetings with lawmakers, pro Israel groups and non-proliferations experts the past two weeks, Obama administration officials have said they are seeking to finalize an interim deal with Iran by January that would halt the advancement of Iran’s nuclear program, and then work out a comprehensive deal over the following six to 12 months.

“To the people of Israel, I want to say that the talks of the six world powers is the first step to stop the clock and prevent the nuclear program from going forward,” US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told Israel’s Channel 10 in an interview Sunday November 3rd. “Thus we will have the time to discuss a broad agreement that treats all the issues that concern us.”

Possible elements of an interim deal would likely include Iran suspending 20% enrichment, as well as possibly halting the installation of more centrifuges, and suspending work towards bringing online the Arak heavy water reactor, in exchange for some sanctions relief and the possible release of some Iranian frozen hard currency assets in banks abroad, unconfirmed reports have suggested. US officials have said they will not dismantle the architecture of major oil and banking sanctions in an interim step, but presumably in a broader end state deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem Wednesday, warned against an interim deal with Iran that would loosen the sanctions regime.

“I’d be very worried of any partial deals that enable Iran to maintain those capabilities but begin to reduce sanctions because… I think this could undermine the longevity and durability of the sanctions regime,” Netanyahu said.

“Our goal is an Iran that has only a peaceful nuclear program,” Kerry said in remarks with Netanyahu Wednesday. “It is incumbent on us…to know with certainty that it is a peaceful program and there is no capacity to produce a weapon of mass destruction.”

Observers offered mixed assessments of how much progress to expect at this round of talks, scheduled for Thursday and Friday. Iran presented a proposal at a meeting with the P5+1 here last month (October 15-16), followed by technical talks in Vienna last week. Iran has also held two meetings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and has invited IAEA chief Yukiya Amano to come to Iran next week (November 11), though Amano had not yet confirmed his attendance.

“If there is political will on both sides, it would not be out of the question for the two sides to announce a general framework of a [confidence building measure] CBM agreement at the end of this week, with the promise that experts can then flesh out details in the next 30 days, or something like that,” a former western official told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “We have been discussing these issues for a while now — there should be no surprises.”

(Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Paris Tuesday November 5, 2013.)

From cold war to cold peace? Ex Mossad chief sees possible opening

20131104-180456.jpgIstanbul__ Even as Iranians on Monday demonstrated outside the old US embassy on the anniversary of the 1979 embassy seizure and hostage crisis that led to the severing of US-Iranian diplomatic ties, one former Israeli intelligence chief said he saw signs of a potential opportunity emerging from recently intensified US-Iran nuclear diplomacy.

If the US and Iran are able to reach a nuclear deal, will they move next to implement a broader rapprochement? And if so, would the prospect of a thaw in US-Iran ties lead Iran to consider reducing hostilities against Israel? Or is that a bridge too far?

“I come away from this with a sense of possibility, by no means a certainty, that there might be an opening, in which one can turn around the thorniest problem of all: the deep-seated rejection of Israel by the current regime in Iran,” Efraim Halevy, former head of the Israeli intelligence service the Mossad, told Al-Monitor in interviews on the sidelines of a conference on Middle East security issues in Istanbul this week convened by the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs. “This will not be obtained overnight.”

“If the Iranians think straight, ..they must realize it is inconceivable that they [would be] able to change the basics of the relationship between Iran and the U.S. whilst maintaining the level of denial and enmity they now have to Israel,” said Halevy, who conducted secret negotiations with Jordan’s King Hussein that led to the historic 1994 peace treaty between the two countries.

To be sure, there were few signs from Tehran in recent days that it was prepared to abandon its anti-Israel or anti-American enmity, even as a debate has opened up in recent weeks about “Death to America” chants at Friday prayers and after the Tehran municipality last week removed anti-US billboards, describing the posters as put up illegally.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in a speech Sunday after a conspicuous three week absence from the public scene, firmly backed his Iran nuclear negotiating team, and warned hardliners to stop attacking their patriotism and trying to undermine their “difficult mission.” But Khamenei also made clear that he had endorsed negotiations with six world powers on the nuclear issue alone, and not yet a broader rapprochement with the United States, which he described as duplicitous, and its ally Israel as the “bastard and illegitimate…Zionist regime.”

“We should not trust an enemy who smiles,” Khamenei said. “From one side the Americans smile and express a desire to negotiate, and from another they immediately say all options are on the table.”

Iran Foreign Minister and chief nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on a visit to Istanbul October 31st, proposed an exit from “zero sum” thinking on global security matters, and abandoning the calculus that one nation’s security is a factor of the insecurity of its adversary.

Halevy, analyzing the speech, said he found elements of it “exhilarating.”

Zarif “said security is no longer a zero sum game, but a global issue….in which all of the players emerge with their interests intact,” Halevy said. “Therefore ultimately what he is saying, it will not be able to reach an understanding which will satisfy Iran”s security problems, without addressing Israel’s security concerns.”

It “could be that what we are seeing here is a deception, that there is a campaign of smiles which is designed to delude us-both the world and Israel into a false reading of the situation,” Halevy cautioned.

Zarif said there was no place in Iran’s security doctrine for nuclear weapons, and that both security interests as well as religious edicts forbid Iran from ever pursuing a weapon. “Certainly there’s enough evidence to show he knows what he is saying for public consumption is not consistent with the facts,” Halevy said, disputing the assertion that Iran had never pursued a weapons program. “But you cannot ignore the fact that the tone and the reasoning being presented…is different.”

“It’s too early in the game to say what will happen here,” Halevy said. “If the dynamism that leads to a resolution of the nuclear issue, leads to a thaw between Iran and the US, it’s very difficult for the Iranians to envisage an ‘American spring’ at the same time they pursue a confrontation with Israel.”

“America is signaling very clearly it wants to reach a conclusion, it wants to be able to close the nuclear file,” Halevy said. “If the Iranians want to close the nuclear file, let’s imagine, what then? Will it resume diplomatic relations, trade, the flow of academicians… What do you do?”

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Iran FM Zarif outlines ideas to exit nuclear dispute

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Istanbul __ Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Friday he believes Iran and six world powers should accept each other’s chief objectives as their own in order to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

“On the nuclear issue, I believe the problem we have faced in the last ten years is we have both seen the nuclear issue as a zero sum game; we have articulated two seemingly opposing objectives, and each tried to make gains for one objective seemingly at the expense of the others,” Zarif told an audience of Middle East nonproliferation specialists convened in Istanbul Friday by the Pugwash conference on nuclear disarmament.

“The result has been that ten years ago, Iran had less than 160 centrifuges spinning, now it has over 18,000,” Zarif, speaking in English, said. While ten years ago, “Iran’s economy was prospering, now sanctions are hurting the wrong segment of the population. I hope we have come to understand that approach was wrong.”

Zarif said he proposed, at meetings with the P5+1 in New York and Geneva the past two months, a new approach: that Iran accepts the West’s objective that Iran never have a nuclear weapon, and that the West accept Iran’s objective that it have a peaceful nuclear energy program that includes domestic enrichment, with mechanisms to verify it not be used for military purposes.

Iran’s nuclear know-how and technology are now “homegrown,” Zarif said, to explain why he thinks it in the West’s interest to accept Iranian enrichment. You “cannot kill all our scientists and kill our program. …You cannot destroy the technology. How to ensure [the program] is peaceful: allow it operate in a transparent fashion; you cannot push it under the rug.”

Asked whether he believes President Obama would be able to sell Congress on an Iran nuclear deal that includes sanctions relief, Zarif said he would leave American domestic politics to the Americans to sort out: “I do not interfere in American domestic politics.” Both sides have public opinion on their side to pursue a negotiated settlement, he said he believes, but formidable hardline constituencies to contend with at home as well.

“I believe leaders need to show leadership,” Zarif said. “I think experience shows, once there is a good deal, the US president will be able to sell it, and I think we will be able to sell it too.”

Zarif spoke here, at a presidential palace overlooking the Bosporous on the Asian side of the city, on a panel with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, on his first official visit to Turkey since assuming the post of foreign minister in the Hassan Rouhani administration in August. While Zarif and Davutoglu had warm words for each other, the two nations’ differences on Syria were apparent. However, they agreed that the US-Russian agreement that led to Syria’s decision to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles and join the chemical weapons ban was a positive development, and urged that it be a first step towards a broader agreement towards ridding the entire Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.

“I agree with my good friend and brother, Javad-bey,” Davutoglu said. “Something good happens with the Syria chemical weapons ban, at least the process has started.”

Zarif, whose back seemed much improved from when he appeared at a press conference in Geneva last month in a wheel chair, was due to travel on to Ankara Friday for meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu. He is slated to travel to Paris next week, ahead of leading the Iranian delegation to the next round of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, in Geneva on November 7-8th.

(Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif speaks at a press conference in Istanbul on Friday, November 1, 2013. Associated Press.)