US staffs up to pursue intensified Iran final deal talks

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Diplomats and experts from six world powers and Iran have staffed up to pursue intensified, almost “constant” contacts to try to reach a final nuclear deal, a senior US administration official said Friday, ahead of a second round of political directors-Iran nuclear talks in Vienna next week. The parties have already agreed that sanctions relief in a final deal would be phased in, step by step, in response to specific action that Iran takes, the official said.

“These comprehensive negotiations will not be done for three days a month by the political directors,” the senior US administration official said. “Our experts have been and will be in constant contact between these rounds.”

“For example, last week, our experts spent a full week in Vienna to talk through various issues at a detailed level and explore options for a comprehensive solution,” the US official said. “When not in Vienna, they are back in capitals communicating with one another and working through various technical issues that are part of the negotiations.”

Lead US negotiator at the talks, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, spoke at length individually with every political director from the P5+1—the US, UK, France, China, Russia plus Germany—this past week, the US official said. Tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine do not appear to have yet impacted P5+1 co-ordination in the Iran negotiations, the official suggested, saying it was a US hope and priority that it does not.

Former Deputy US UN ambassador Brooke Anderson has joined the US Iran nuclear negotiating team as a senior advisor to Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry. Anderson, the former Obama National Security Council chief of staff, will be based out of Brussels full-time to coordinate with European Union negotiators and P5+1 partners and Washington, amid ongoing expert and political level consultations. The US has also added several more experts to its team, and several officials, particularly from the US Department of Energy, will be joining the negotiations in Vienna, the official said.

The US has not had bilateral talks with Iran since their meeting on the sidelines of the P5+1/Iran talks in Vienna last month, the U.S. official said.

To date, Iran and the P5+1 have fulfilled their commitments in the Joint Plan of Action, the six month interim nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November, the US official said. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently verified that Iran has diluted half of its 20% stockpile, among other steps laid out in the interim deal, the official noted.

The parties’ ability to reach the interim deal has given then a bit more confidence that they may be able to reach a final deal, she said, adding, however, that there are no guarantees.

With no issue agreed until all the issues are agreed, the final deal talks are like a “Rubik’s cube,” the US official said,  “a puzzle that has to be put together….over the course of the negotiations, until one has narrowed [it] down to the few toughest parts.”

In terms of some of those toughest issues, such as past possible military dimensions (PMDs) to Iran’s nuclear program, and ballistic missiles, the JPOA says that all UN Security Council resolutions on Iran must be addressed before a comprehensive agreement is reached, the US official said. “There are a variety of things in the UN Security Council resolutions, including the issue of ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. All of this will have to be addressed in some way.” But the US official did not elaborate on what would constitute satisfactorily addressing the issue. The more that Iran can demonstrate transparency to the IAEA, including on PMDs, the better the odds of reaching a final deal, the official said.

Regarding Iranian enrichment, the US official said while the US prefers that Iran supply its civil nuclear energy program without a domestic enrichment program, “we understand Iran feels strongly” that it should have one. “The JPOA envisions that a domestic enrichment program can be the subject of [comprehensive deal] discussions,” the official said. If all the parties to the comprehensive talks agree, “the program will be quite limited, under heavy monitoring and verification, for very specific purposes.”

Regarding sanctions relief for a possible final deal, the US official said, “we need to understand in great detail how to unwind sanctions, what by the executive branch, what by waivers, what by Congressional action. We are detailing all of that.”

The US, its P5+1 partners and Iran have agreed that “any sanctions relief [in a final deal] should… be phased in…in response to actions that Iran takes,” the US official said.  “It will happen over time, step by step.”

(Top Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman after the P5+1 reached a nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva, Switzerland, Nov. 24, 2013. // State Department Photo. Second photo, former US Ambassador to the UN Brooke Anderson has joined the US nuclear negotiating team as a senior advisor and will be based out of Brussels.)

Brahimi warns Syria elections could end talks

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned Thursday that if Syria goes forward with presidential elections, it would likely mean the end of reconciliation talks with the Syrian opposition.

“If there is an election, then my suspicion is that the opposition, all the oppositions, will probably not be interested in talking to the government,” Brahimi told reporters at the UN in New York Thursday, after briefing the UN Security Council on the situation.

“We would like the help of the Council and all those who can help to make sure that if and when we have a third round it will be a little bit more productive than the second one,” Brahimi said.

But Russia on Thursday blocked a draft UN Security Council statement that expressed the body’s support for Brahimi’s Syria mediation efforts, and would have endorsed his call for parallel talks on ending terrorism and a political transition.

Russia’s envoy Vitaly Churkin did not attend Brahimi’s briefing, but was seen by Bloomberg News’ UN reporter conferring with Syria’s UN envoy Bashar Ja’afari outside the Council in the UN’s Turkish lounge during the session.

Ja’afari later told UN reporters Thursday that Syria’s parliament was discussing an election law that would apply to all of Syria’s elections—presidential, parliamentary and local—but did not confirm if presidential elections would go forward this summer.

Britain’s UN envoy Mark Lyall Grant took to Twitter Thursday to express disappointment that the UN Security Council could not muster agreement for “even [a] simple statement of support” for Brahimi’s efforts.

Brahimi is due to brief the full UN General Assembly on his Syria mediation efforts on Friday. It’s not clear if he’s seeking a vote to back his efforts from the UN General Assembly, in which no country has a veto.

(Photo by Bloomberg News’ Sangwon Yoon, of Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin and Syria’s Bashar Jaafari conferring outside the UN Security Council Thursday, via  Twitter.)

UN urges Russia, US to resume Syria peace talks


UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, on the third anniversary of Syria’s civil war, appealed to the US and Russia to get the Syrian parties back to the peace table.

“The Secretary-General appeals to the region and the international community and in particular to the Russian Federation and the United States, as the initiating States of the Geneva Conference on Syria, to take clear steps to re-energize the Geneva process,” a spokesman for Ban Ki-Moon said in a statement Wednesday.

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is due to brief the UN Security Council in New York on Thursday and the full UN General Assembly on the Syria diplomatic track on Friday, a UN spokesperson told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

As to officials saying Brahimi had recently threatened to the Russians to quit if they wouldn’t press the Assad regime to discuss political transition, there were few signs in Ban’s statement Wednesday that the veteran Algerian diplomat is planning an abrupt exit. “Working with Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, the Syrian sides and regional and international actors must act now to bring the tragedy in Syria to an end,” Ban’s statement said.

The situation, however, is still “unclear,” a western diplomat said Wednesday.

It’s “still a work in progress as to how we would get to round three, but efforts continue,” the western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. The “key is to get [the] regime to commit to discuss not only terrorism, but [the Transitional Governing Body] TGB as well.”

France on Wednesday circulated a draft UN Security Council press statement that would call for fully backing Brahimi’s efforts, including holding simultaneous discussions on both political transition and ending terrorism and violence. Continue reading

Interpol IDs Iranians on MH370, terror link not suspected


Two Iranian nationals identified Tuesday as having used stolen European passports to board missing Malaysia Air flight 370 are not suspected of links to terrorist groups, Interpol said Tuesday, in releasing their photos.

“The more information we get, the more we are inclined to conclude it is not a terrorist incident,” Interpol Secretary-General Ron Noble said Tuesday.

Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, and Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29, arrived in Malaysia from Iran on February 28 on their Iranian passports. They checked into flight MH370 in Kuala Lumpur Saturday (March 8), using European passports reported stolen by their owners in Thailand in 2012 and 2013.

Pouri Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, was booked through Beijing onto Amsterdam then Frankfurt, where his mother resides and was waiting for him. The mother contacted authorities when he did not arrive, Malaysia’s police chief told reporters near Kuala Lumpur Tuesday.

Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza was also booked from Kuala Lumpur through Beijing to Amsterdam, and then onto Copenhagen, reports said.

Iran on Tuesday said it has offered to cooperate with the investigation into the missing Malaysia Air flight and reports that Iranian nationals were passengers on it.

Iran is “following up on reports regarding the possibility of two Iranian passengers aboard the plane,” Iran Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Tuesday, Agence France Press reported.

“We are offering our cooperation to obtain more information” and would provide “any information on the Iranians and their status as soon as it is available,” she said.

On Monday, a contact of the two Iranian men spoke to BBC Persia and sent a note to CNN with a photo of the two men saying they were ordinary passengers, who were using the stolen European passports to try to get to Europe, and saying that he had been cooperating with Malaysia Air.

“I have some information about the 2 people who was in MH370 with stolen passport,” the Iranians’ contact, using the handle mamadDC, posted on CNN’s website from Kuala Lumpur Monday. CNN later removed the post, but Al-Monitor saved it and the accompanying photo, which matched that of the two Iranians later released by Interpol.

“On[e] of them was my high school friend,” he said. “And I already give the information to the Malaysian airline…I thought maybe my information can help to the world. and i put the last picture of them.”


The second man on the left is Pouria [Nour Mohammad Mehrdad], who used the stolen Austrian passport, their contact wrote. The man on the far right, [Delavar Seyed Mohammad] Reza, used the stolen Italian passport.

The men identified in the photo provided by their friend to media Monday look to be the same as those in photos taken from CCTV released by Interpol on Tuesday. Continue reading

Syria conflict ‘incubator of extremism,’ Burns tells Senators

The Syrian civil war has become an “incubator of extremism” and a “magnet” for foreign fighters, and poses growing risks to U.S. interests and allies, U.S. officials told frustrated lawmakers Thursday. The three year old conflict is also likely to go on for a long time, they assessed, as it pulls in foreign fighters from both sides of the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, and both Bashar al-Assad and his opponents believe they can win.

“The hard reality is that the grinding Syrian civil war is now an incubator of extremism, on both sides of the sectarian divide.” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, at a hearing on the Syrian civil war that led off with the deepening US-Russian rift over Ukraine.

“We face a number of serious risks to our interests as a result,” Burns said. “The risk to the homeland from global jihadist groups…the risk to the stability of our regional partners….and the risk to the Syrian people, whose suffering constitutes the greatest humanitarian crisis of this new century.”

That grim assessment may portend the U.S. deepening its support for Syrian opposition fighters now battling both Al Qaeda-linked groups and Assad, and stepped up U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, in coordination with regional partners and European allies alarmed by the threat posed by jihadi fighters returning from Syria.

Syria “has become the preeminent location for independent or al-Qaida-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of extremists, some of whom we assess may seek to conduct external attacks,” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), testified (.pdf).

US policy on Syria is to counter extremists, boost moderates, and shore up Syria’s embattled neighbors and population with aid to withstand the protracted conflict, Burns told lawmakers.

“First, we are working to isolate and degrade terrorist networks in Syria,” Burns said. “It also means stepping up efforts to strengthen the moderate opposition, without which progress toward a negotiated transition of leadership through the Geneva process or any other diplomatic effort is impossible.”

With the Syrian opposition battling a two-front war against Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), it has lost some ground, reducing pressure on Assad and his patrons to make concessions on a political transition at the Geneva talks, while  seemingly increasing US willingness to coordinate increased assistance to opposition forces.

“Strengthened moderate forces are critical both to accelerate the demise of the Asad regime, and to help Syrians build a counterweight to the extremists,” Burns said.

Lawmakers on the panel expressed frustration and exasperation that the situation in Syria has deteriorated so drastically over time, with some suggesting it was partly a result of over-cautiousness and inaction by the Obama administration.

“What does the administration expect to do to change the equation on the ground in Syria now that it’s become what it is,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), ranking Republican on the foreign relations panel, asked Burns. He said that Secretary of State John Kerry had suggested to him and other lawmakers at a meeting last month that the US was on the verge of announcing a more assertive US policy on Syria.

“We certainly are looking at a range of options, [some of which I] can’t discuss in this setting,” Burns said. “We are looking actively at other ways we can support the moderate opposition, [working in coordination with others]… All of us understand what’s at stake here, what we and our partners do.”

But administration statements that it is stepping up support to Syrian opposition fighters is something that some lawmakers said they had heard before, only for the conflict to intensify and the death toll to mount, while straining the fragile stability of neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.

“100,000 people ago we were hearing this,” an exasperated Corker said, referring to the mounting death toll in Syria’s three year conflict, now estimated to be as high as 140,000 people.

The conflict is unlikely to end soon, the NCTC’s Olsen said, as both sides are digging in for a protracted fight.

With hostilities “between Sunni and Shia…intensifying in Syria and spilling into neighboring countries,” it increases “the likelihood of a protracted conflict in Syria, as both seek military advantage,” Olsen said. “Both the Syrian regime and the opposition believe that they can achieve a military victory in the ongoing conflict.”

“As long as Assad exists, the civil war will get worse,” Burns said. “This is going to require an ‘all of the above’ effort.”

UN Syria envoy Brahimi said to consider resigning


UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with the Russians last week and threatened to resign if they did not get the Syrian regime to seriously negotiate.

Russian diplomats in the meeting said they would like to have another round of Syria peace talks in Geneva, a western official told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

Brahimi responded, what’s the point, if the Syrian regime delegation is only going to insult the opposition delegation, as it did at the last two rounds of talks, the western official, speaking not for attribution, said. The Russians said they did not have as much influence over the Syrian regime as some observers think, and Brahimi said that he thought they did have some, and that they should use it, the official described.

“I would not hold my breath for Geneva,” the western official said, referring to another round of Syria peace talks anytime soon.

The deadlocked Syria diplomatic process comes amid a deepening rift between its chief cosponsors, the US and Russia, over Russia’s de facto occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Brahimi met with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Wednesday. But Brahimi did not speak to reporters after the meeting, and the State Department said it did not yet have information on what was said. Update: Kerry and Brahimi discussed the status of the Geneva talks at their meeting Wednesday, a State Department official told Al-Monitor Thursday. “The talks are still on recess,” the official said. “We look forward to JSR Brahimi’s briefing to the Security Council in closed consultations on March 13.”

Kerry also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, and they were due to meet again in Rome on Thursday.

“We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with the Ukrainians, in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it, and overcome the crisis,” Kerry told reporters after his day of meetings in Paris.

“All parties agreed today that it is important to try to resolve these issues through dialogue,” Kerry said. “I don’t believe..any of us are served by greater or further confrontation.  And also, we met today to discuss these issues because we cannot and will not allow the integrity of the sovereignty of the country of Ukraine to be violated and for those violations to go unanswered.”

If Brahimi quits as the UN/Arab League special envoy, a possible candidate to succeed him is former Kuwaiti foreign minister Shaikh Mohammad Al Sabah, Gulf News reported Wednesday.

Brahimi is already the second joint UN/Arab League special Syria envoy to consider resigning. His predecessor Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, quit in frustration in the summer of 2012, shortly after the first round of Geneva talks was held.

“Yes, he has threatened to resign, but that isn’t new,” a U.S. official told Al-Monitor Wednesday of Brahimi. “But I suspect he will persist.”

“I don’t want to speak to what his intentions may or may not be,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department Wednesday about whether Brahimi is resigning.  “Obviously, we have confidence in him and he has done a great job convening the beginning of the Geneva process.  There are many paths and many routes that we are pursuing at the same time as it relates to diplomacy in Syria.”

Separately, the United States informed Syria’s mission to the United Nations last month that Syrian diplomats posted there will be confined to within 25 miles of New York, the State Department said Wednesday. A U.S. official said the decision to restrict Syrian diplomats’ movement to the New York area had been in the works for several months, and was not related to the breakdown in talks in recent weeks.

Meantime, Brahimi’s deputy in Damascus, Mokhtar Lamani, resigned on Monday, Al-Arabiya reported.

US Syria envoy Robert Ford also retired last week after serving thirty years as a US diplomat, the State Department announced last Friday (February 28). Daniel Rubenstein, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan and US Consul General in Jerusalem will be tapped to succeed him as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor previously reported.

“I am very, very sorry and I apologize to the Syrian people,” Brahimi told journalists in Geneva last month after the second round of Syria peace talks concluded with no future meeting set, as the Syrian regime side refused to discuss a political transition. The Syrian peoples’ “hopes .. were very, very high here, that something will happen here.”

(Photo of UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva in January by Reuters.)

Syria envoy Robert Ford retires, Rubenstein to be named successor

US Syria envoy Robert Ford retired on Friday after 30 years distinguished service, the State Department announced Friday.

Ford’s “extraordinary leadership has guided our response to one of the most formidable foreign policy challenges in the region,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists Friday.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Lawrence Silverman will temporarily serve as his replacement until a permanent successor is named, Psaki said.

US officials tell Al-Monitor that US diplomat Daniel Rubenstein will be named as Ford’s permanent successor working with the Syrian opposition. Rubenstein, described by colleagues as an “outstanding Arabist,” currently serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the State Department Intelligence and Research bureau (INR).

Rubenstein previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Jordan (2005-2008), as the US Consul General  in Jerusalem (2009-2012), and as chief of the Civilian Observer Unit in the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, Egypt. Rubenstein, who is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and Portuguese, also served in earlier postings in Damascus, Tunis, Tel Aviv, and Brasilia. He couldn’t immediately be reached Saturday for comment.