US negotiator hears, amid skepticism, Senate support for diplomacy with Iran

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With support waning for Iran sanctions legislation, top US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman and Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen testified on the Iran nuclear deal to the Senate foreign relations panel Tuesday.

Despite sinking prospects for the Iran sanctions bill he co-sponsored, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) expressed continued deep skepticism about the terms of the interim Iran nuclear deal which went into effect on Jan. 20, and to be looking for ways to constrain the administration’s hand for negotiating a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal.

But the nitpicking, somewhat sour tone of the hearing was broken by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), who made an impassioned case for aggressive US diplomacy with Iran, while defending colleagues who supported the Iran sanctions legislation from charges of war-mongering.

“We have to be able to look allies and citizens & [US service members] in the eye and tell them we exhausted every diplomatic effort,” Kaine told the hearing. “We have got to give diplomacy a chance. …. We have to return to the tradition of aggressive diplomacy.”

“Everyone would prefer a diplomatic path to [a] non-nuclear Iran,” Kaine said. “We have good faith differences on tactics.”

Kaine’s comments, praised by several other Senators, prompted Sherman to reach out to lawmakers, some of whom had championed the sanctions legislation the Obama White House fiercely opposed and threatened to veto. “I don’t believe any of you are war mongers,” Sherman said. “I don’t believe anyone prefers war.”

If diplomacy is unable to succeed in getting Iran to forgo a nuclear weapon and the US ultimately decides it needs to use force, “I want to be able to say at the end of the day, we have exhausted every opportunity to negotiate a diplomatic” solution, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) said, noting he had not declared a position on the sanctions bill, and praising Kaine’s defense of colleagues on both sides of it.

Another member of the panel, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), noted that he had been on a panel with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Munich Security Summit last weekend.

Earlier in the hearing, Menendez had pressed Sherman on the administration’s terms for a comprehensive nuclear deal. Sherman said she doesn’t want to negotiate with Iran in public, ahead of comprehensive Iran nuclear deal talks set to get underway in Vienna Feb. 18. But in response to his questions, she said the United States does not believe the underground Fordo site should be an enrichment facility in a final deal, or that Iran should have a heavy water reactor.

“Where Fordo is concerned, we see no reason for it to remain an enrichment facility,” Sherman said. Asked about Arak, she said, “We do not believe [there is] any reason for [a] heavy water reactor.”

Asked about how many centrifuges Iran could have in a final deal, Sherman responded, “I am not going to get into a specific number in this setting, but that needs to be addressed.” “Will there need to be a reduction?” Menendez asked. “Yes,” Sherman said.

She also clarified some misunderstandings about the centrifuge research and development Iran is permitted to do under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). Iran, under the JPOA, cannot work on advanced centrifuges not listed in Nov 14 2013 IAEA report, she said. It can only replace centrifuges in enrichment sites of the same type, not with more advanced models, she said.

The Joint Plan of Action “required Iran to come clean on past actions as part of a comprehensive agreement,” Sherman said. She suggested there will be an additional step or steps between the Phase 1 deal and the final deal, to bring Iran into compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, that would require Iran to address questions such as possible military dimensions to its nuclear program and alleged weaponization work carried out at the Parchin facility to which the IAEA has not gotten requested access.

“Iran has not rejected” addressing it, Sherman said. “It knows it has to be addressed.” Continue reading

Roundup: Obama to Riyadh, Israel DM in front row for Zarif talk

  • The White House confirmed that President Obama will travel to Saudi Arabia in March.
  • Hillary Clinton announces her opposition to new Iran sanctions in a Jan. 26 letter (.pdf) to Sen. Carl Levin.
  • Some 70 House Democrats reportedly sign a letter favoring diplomacy with Iran.
  • Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the Holocaust a “horrifying tragedy” that “should never occur again” in an interview with Germany’s Phoenix TV.
  • In a shift, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon sat in the front row during Zarif’s panel at the Munich Security Conference Sunday. (photo top right).
  • Iran Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian announced that Iran will host a conference on Syrian humanitarian assistance involving Swiss, Syrian and Iranian officials in Tehran. Last week, Amir-Abdollahian denied an Al Jazeera report that Iranian officials were meeting in Bern with the Syrian sides.
  • Turkish President Abdullah Gul shows daylight with PM Erdogan on Syria policy.
  • GOP Senators say John Kerry expressed frustration with Russia slow-rolling US on Syria.
  • Iran’s top clergy backs Hassan Rouhani’s nuclear diplomacy.

Iran FM Zarif, meeting Kerry, says not authorized to discuss Syria


Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference for just over an hour Sunday.

They discussed upcoming comprehensive Iran nuclear negotiations set to get underway in Vienna this month, and the case of Americans detained or missing in Iran.

But notably, when Kerry raised the issue of Syria, Zarif indicated that he was not authorized to discuss it, a U.S. official told Al-Monitor.

“Secretary Kerry raised his concerns about the delay in moving chemical weapons to the port in Latakia, and the humanitarian situation on the ground specifically in the besieged areas,” a senior US official told Al-Monitor Sunday. “He also urged Iran to show a willingness to play a constructive role in bringing an end to the conflict.”

“Foreign Minister Zarif made clear that he did not have the authority to discuss Syria and the focus of the meeting was on the nuclear negotiations,” the U.S. official said.

It was apparently the first time the State Department has acknowledged that Kerry has tried to raise the issue of Syria directly with the Iranians–and that it was the Iranian envoy who rebuffed it.

Kerry and Zarif, who met for just over an hour, “discussed the upcoming negotiations with the P5+1 and the EU on a comprehensive agreement that will begin in Vienna” later this month, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a readout of the meeting.

Kerry “reiterated the importance of both sides negotiating in good faith and Iran abiding by its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action,” Psaki said.  “He also made clear that the United States will continue to enforce existing sanctions.”

Kerry also brought up the case of US citizens detained or believed missing in Iran, Robert Levinson, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini, and cooperation to try to secure their release, Psaki said.

Six world powers and Iran will launch the first round of negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear accord in Vienna on February 18th, the European Union and Iran announced last week.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, speaking to the Wall Street Journal Sunday, said everyone expects the talks on a final deal would be very difficult, and that the parties would take the time “necessary to get this to be the right agreement.” She also said she has accepted an invitation to travel to Iran sometime after the Vienna round of nuclear talks.

Also in Munich, Israeli officials remained in the room during Zarif’s speech to the Munich Security Conference Sunday. (The photo at the right shows Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Bogie Ya’alon in the front row, last seat, watching Zarif’s address to the Munich Security Conference Sunday.)

But Israel’s intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz had harsh words for Kerry, who got asked in the Q/A after his address to the conference Saturday about the campaign to boycott goods and divest from Israel’s settlements. The boycotts/divestment solidarity (BDS) campaign has recently received global attention because of actress Scarlett Johansson’s dismissal as a special ambassador from Oxfam International because of her association with the SodaStream company, which has a factory in the West Bank settlement of Maale Adunim. “Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a gun to its head,” Steinitz reportedly complained to reporters about Kerry’s comments.

The State Department pushed back forcefully against Steinitz’s attack, saying it was misleading to suggest that Kerry supported the boycott campaign or had threatened Israel with it.

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