Iran, EU negotiators expected to meet (Updated)


Top Iran and European Union nuclear negotiators are expected to meet in Istanbul on Monday, Al-Monitor has learned, though representatives of neither side would confirm the meeting date or venue.

“They will meet in Istanbul on Monday and perhaps Tuesday,” a diplomatic source, speaking not for attribution, told Al- Monitor Sunday., referring to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The Zarif Ashton meeting is expected to start Monday afternoon in Istanbul, the diplomatic source said.

After Al-Monitor’s report on the unannounced meeting Sunday, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported that Zarif and Ashton were to meet in Istanbul this afternoon and continue the next day.

The meeting comes as negotiators from Iran and six world powers are regrouping after sobering final deal talks in Vienna this month at which both sides seemed taken aback by the others’ positions, and urged their counterparts to return to the talks with more “realism.”

It is unclear why there seemed to be unusual secrecy about the Zarif-Ashton meeting, or why, if it’s to take place, it hasn’t been announced. No American officials are expected to participate in the meeting, Al-Monitor understood.

“I can’t confirm anything. i have no comment,” a spokesperson for Ashton told Al-Monitor early Monday, after Iranian media reported Zarif’s plane had departed for Istanbul to meet Ashton there. Ashton was thought to be returning from South Korea on Sunday, an EU official earlier said.

Zarif met with his Turkish counterpart Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last week on the sidelines of an Asian summit in Shanghai, China, but no visit was announced. Zarif is expected to attend a conference of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) in Algeria later in the week.

At the first real comprehensive nuclear deal negotiating round in Vienna earlier this month, the Iranians were said to be shaken by a P5+1 proposal for a ten-year (or by one account, 20-year) plan for phased sanctions relief in a final deal, that Iran found much too slow. The Iranians were also described as having felt the U.S. position in particular had hardened in the most recent Vienna meeting, sources said. (US officials deny the US position has hardened or changed). The US also reportedly raised the ballistic missile issue with the Iranians, which Iran’s negotiators have repeatedly said they refuse to discuss as they consider the missile program a sovereign defense issue outside of the P5+1’s nuclear purview.

Meantime, former US officials close to the US negotiating team have repeatedly implored Iranian negotiators to recognize that Iran’s expectations for the size of its uranium enrichment program have got to be lowered to reach a final deal.

The next round of P5+1 Iran final deal talks is expected to be held in Vienna starting on June 16th. But US, Iranian and EU officials have said there will be additional consultations in different forms and at different levels in advance of those, as the parties aim to try to close a deal by the July 20th expiration of a six month interim deal.

Separately, the US-Iran bilateral channel that helped advance an interim nuclear deal last fall has not yet restarted during the final deal talks this year, outside of bilateral meetings that have taken place on the sidelines of the P5+1/Iran talks, US and Iranian sources told Al-Monitor.

(Photo of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a dinner in Vienna May 14, 2014 by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.)

Enrichment capacity seen as key hurdle to Iran deal


Washington, DC__ Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday offered upbeat reassurances about prospects for reaching a nuclear deal, even as negotiators from Iran and six world powers reported no progress from “sticker shock” nuclear talks in Vienna last week, and urged each other to return to the table next time with more “realism.”

With the “positive trend of talks, we are on threshold of solving [the] nuclear issue,” Rouhani said in China Wednesday.

Despite the intentions of both sides, Iran and world powers will not be able to reach a final nuclear accord unless Iran lowers its expectations for the size of its enrichment program, non-proliferation experts in consultation with the parties warned.

“I think Iran genuinely wants a deal,” former State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor Robert Einhorn told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“But it may not yet realize that it can’t get one unless it is prepared to lower its sights on the enrichment capacity it will be allowed to have under an agreement,” Einhorn said.

“If a deal is to happen, Iran must make the strategic decision to forego a near-term breakout capability in the form of a sizable enrichment program,” Jofi Joseph, a former White House Iran non-proliferation advisor, said Wednesday. “If it is prepared to do so, a deal can come together quickly this summer. If not, then an impasse will occur.”

Iran was frustrated by the P5+1 proposal in Vienna for a decade or more time-frame for phased sanctions relief, and wants sanctions relief in a deal to be more front-loaded for steps it’s also willing to take on the front end.

The P5+1 “say that after the agreement, we have to prove our goodwill. They will then remove sanctions one by one,” over a period of ten years, Seyed Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse reported Wednesday.

Iran also rejects that its ballistic missile program should be a subject for discussion with the P5+1, Iran’s negotiators have repeatedly said.

The largest gap that has Iran deal watchers concerned, however, is between the expectations of Iran and the West over the size of Iran’s enrichment program.

“What matters most is whether the two sides can agree on a much more limited uranium enrichment program for near term,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Al-Monitor.

“Only if Iran meets its obligations, builds confidence its program not being used for military purposes, and Iran demonstrates it has legitimate nuclear fuel needs will the international community agree to relaxing those constraints,” Kimball said.

“The brinkmanship will continue until the last minute,” one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “My problem is the incompatibility of the two sides’ end objectives…maintaining nuclear capability vs. rolling it back.”

Sources suggest the Iranians would like to initially maintain the number of centrifuges they are currently operating under the six month interim deal–about 9,000 IR-1s – to be the starting amount in the near term of a final deal, that would be allowed to increase after some duration. At the end of an as yet to be agreed period in which it would agree to restrictions and extensive inspections, monitoring and safeguards, Iran wants to have its status as a member of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) normalized, so that it could in theory have no restrictions on the size of its enrichment program.

“I understand that Iran has indicated willingness to consider short term constraints on the size of its enrichment program, such as freezing at the current level of 9,000 operating IR-1s for a few years before gradually expanding to an industrial scale of 50,000 or more IR-1 centrifuge machines,” former Obama White House non-proliferation advisor Gary Samore said in a speech posted at the Harvard Belfer Center website this week.

Meantime, Congressional sources and Israeli officials would find a deal under which Iran operated 3,000 IR-1 centrifuges while maintaining a small stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium, allowing a one year “breakout” period, “politically defensible,” Samore wrote.

Getting Iran to agree to restrict the size of its enrichment program in the near and medium term is probably more important than how many centrifuges it says it wants after a decade or two, some non-proliferation experts said.

“I actually think if you could get to a near term agreement, that would make us feel comfortable over the next ten years, it would take care of itself,” Greg Thielmann, a former US intelligence analyst with the Arms Control Association, said Tuesday.

Sources expect Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to meet as early as this weekend to discuss how to bridge wide gaps in positions, ahead of the next round of talks in Vienna June 16th. US and Iranian sources did not immediately respond if U.S. officials would participate in the meeting or might meet separately.

(Photo of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attending a banquet in Vienna May 14 2014 by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.)

‘Sticker shock’ meeting: Wide gaps as negotiators start drafting Iran accord


Vienna_ The first drafting round of Iran final deal talks ended with few signs of progress Friday, but negotiators from all sides said they had expected difficult moments along the way as they got down to negotiating the tough issues involved in a comprehensive deal.

It was a “useful, but at times difficult” meeting,” a senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in Vienna after the conclusion of the talks Friday. “But that is not entirely unexpected.”

“We knew there would be” such difficult moments, the U.S. official said. “We are at the beginning of the drafting process. We have a significant way to go. There are wide gaps. … We do not know if we will be able to conclude” a final deal by July 20, but that is still the goal.

The West should “overcome its illusions,” and return to the talks “with more realism,” a senior Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Friday night, when asked how to get the talks unstuck.

“Iran’s red lines” are well known, the senior Iranian official said. “There were no surprises” in the positions Iran presented here, he indicated.

Negotiators from the US and the European Union said they expected another round of political director meetings between Iran and the P5+1 to be held in June in Vienna, but would announce the dates later, as they determine if they need an additional meeting, as they aim to conclude an accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires.

The past three rounds of final deal talks held in Vienna this year have focused on agenda setting, and on putting all the issues on the table that need to be addressed in a final accord. This was the first meeting where we “now talked about ways to bridge those gaps,” a different, far more difficult process, the senior US official said.

The US and Iranian negotiating teams held a long, three hour bilateral meeting in Vienna Friday morning that State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf characterized as “serious and straightforward.”

Lead US negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman also joined in at the end of the last meeting Friday between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Asked by Al-Monitor if the US and Iran have had held additional bilateral meetings outside of the ones announced on the sidelines of Vienna, the US official did not answer yes or no directly. “I don’t have additional details for you,’ the official said.

We are obviously not going to be able to “resolve all our differences in four days in Vienna,” the senior US official earlier said. That’s “why in between sessions there are continuous expert level discussions, political director conversations,” etc. “I also foresee an increasing number of in-person meetings.”

“This was the ‘sticker shock’ meeting,” a former senior U.S. official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Friday.

“Significant differences remain on how many centrifuges Iran should be permitted to have to meet ‘practical needs’ for nuclear energy and research, as well as significant differences on the length of the agreement and the pace and scope of sanctions relief accompanying a final deal,” the former U.S. official said. “Other areas, like the possible military dimensions of past Iranian nuclear research, are also tricky.”

“So, instead of papering over these differences in a post-meeting statement, the negotiators apparently felt that they had to return to their capitals to consult with national leaders about how they might overcome them,” the former US official suggested. “It remains to be seen if that is possible, but both sides still appear committed to overcoming the nuclear crisis.”

(Photo of members of the US negotiating team-senior non proliferation advisor Jim Timbie, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Amb. Brooke Anderson, Treasury’s Adam Szubin, NSC Middle East advisor Rob Malley, State Department Persian language spokesperson Alan Eyre, walking out of Vienna’s Palais Coburg by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.)

Negotiator: Iran talks ‘good but difficult’

Vienna__ Iran and six world powers are holding a second day of meetings here as they aim to progress to drafting the text of a final nuclear accord by the end of July, amid continued wide gaps in key positions.

Negotiators were tight-lipped, but by Thursday evening, when diplomats from six world powers broke for a joint dinner, it was not clear if the actual drafting of the text accord had begun, though one diplomatic source suggested that it had. Diplomats suggested that the process was on track and as expected at this fourth round of comprehensive deal talks.

“Talks are good but difficult,” Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said when he briefly emerged from the negotiating chambers at Vienna’s Palais Coburg hotel late Thursday evening for a dinner with the Iranian delegation. The talks are likely to wrap up Friday and are unlikely to continue on Saturday, he said.

The parties are negotiating “in good faith,” but “it’s difficult and slow,” Araghchi subsequently said.

“We knew this process was going to be difficult, and it has been,” a senior State Department official said Friday. “We need to see more progress being made.”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif held a “useful” three and a half hour meeting Thursday morning, followed by talks between their deputies and parallel expert level talks, and another Zarif Ashton meeting in the evening, Ashton’s spokesman Michael Mann said.

An Iranian source familiar with the Iranian negotiating team’s thinking, who spoke to Al-Monitor not for attribution Wednesday, identified three main challenges that needed to be addressed to bridge negotiating positions, from the Iranian perspective.

“The issue of ‘practical needs,’” for the size of Iran’s domestic uranium enrichment program, the Iranian source told Al-Monitor in Vienna Wednesday. “The time frame of an agreement… And the nature of sanctions relief.”

Iran’s Zarif made a presentation to Ashton on Tuesday, the Iranian source said, adding the two sides came to Vienna “with ideas, and the idea is to write [a draft text] together.”

“Here is the gist: our practical need is not just Arak,” the Iranian source said, referring to the centrifuge capacity to produce enough low enriched uranium to fuel the Arak reactor, under proposed modifications to the unfinished reactor that would reduce its proliferation risk.

Under a ten-year contract, Russia provides fuel for Iran’s Bushehr power reactor. But “in 2021, the fuel for Bushehr runs out,” the Iranian source said. “Why should we be forced to rely on Russia [for fuel for Bushehr] for a lifetime?”

“This goes back to the Iranian narrative of being self-reliant,” he said, noting the Iranian insistence on being able to domestically provide for its own domestic enrichment needs is “nothing new….It goes back 35 years.”

Regarding the time frame of an agreement, the Iranian source said that it is the Iran team’s expectation that “after the signing of a comprehensive deal, there will be an interim period,” where there will be restrictions on Iran’s program, “trust established, the IAEA will go in….there will be no undeclared facilities, and the [possible military dimensions issue] will be resolved. That’s the plan.”

But there has to be a “basis for the argument” for the duration of that interim period, the Iranian source said. If the restrictions should last for ten, 15 or 20 years, the parties have to “examine what is the basis. Why 20 years,” he said. “There is no technical basis.”

“What could serve as the basis for the timeline of this is past experiences with other countries that had concerns with their nuclear programs,” the Iranian source said.

“Libya—the worst example: a crazy dictator…a rogue state with no accountability….—[its nuclear case] was resolved in five years,” the Iranian source said. Japan’s case, he said, was resolved “in less than 10 years.” These past cases should be considered “to create a basis, use a precedent, a logical argument” for the duration of the agreement, he said.

On sanctions relief in a final deal, if the six-month interim deal known as the Joint Plan of Action “showed anything, it is that partial sanctions relief is of limited use,” the Iranian source said. “The sanctions regime is highly interwoven….. actions on [lifting] oil sanctions, financial sanctions, they are of limited value separately.”

“Iran would not mind front-loading the final deal,” the Iranian source said, in which it would “take all the measures [agreed] at the beginning of the deal, and expect its counterpart to do the same.”

U.S. cautions Iran deal not imminent or certain

Vienna__ A senior U.S. official took a tougher line on prospects for reaching a final deal as negotiators from Iran and six world powers arrived here to begin the first drafting round towards a comprehensive Iran nuclear accord.

“Everyone comes to the table wanting a diplomatic solution,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in Vienna Tuesday. “But having the intention does not mean it will happen.”

“Frankly, this is very, very difficult. Though we are drafting… it does not mean agreement is imminent,” the U.S. official cautioned. “There are a range of complicated issues to address. We do not know if Iran will accept” taking the steps necessary.

I am not optimistic or pessimistic, but realistic, the US official said, in answer to a question about what seemed a notably less upbeat forecast about prospects for reaching a compromise than in recent earlier rounds focused more on agenda-setting. She was also reacting to what she said was speculation in the media about provisional agreement reached on aspects of a final deal, such as a solution to the Arak reactor, and a growing sense of optimism in media reports that a deal would be reached.

“What we are working on is a package,” the US official stressed, calling the prospective final deal document the Comprehensive Plan of Action. “Not a checklist. Each individual piece affects the overall outcome. …The only percentage that matters is 100%.”

“One can see how one can get to an agreement by July 20,” but whether we can “get to it is another matter,” the US official said. “This is very tough…. There are points of agreement, there are significant gaps. It is not that there is no solution. There are. Getting to them is another matter.”

The US official’s less upbeat tone on prospects for reaching a final nuclear deal is both meant to manage expectations as the hard bargaining really begins, and because serious differences remain in the two sides’ positions, said Ali Vaez, senior Iran researcher at the International Crisis Group, and lead author of a major new report on solving the Iran nuclear issue, released last week.

“I have the impression that major sticking points remain,” Vaez told Al-Monitor in Vienna Tuesday. “There has been some progress, but still some contentious sticking points remain to be resolved and without them, there will be no agreement.”

Likening the closing weeks of the negotiations to a poker game, Vaez suggested that the negotiating atmosphere is likely “to get worse before it gets better.” It could “get to the point of almost breakdown before both sides reveal their real bottom line.”

This, the fourth round of final deal talks, kicked off Tuesday night with a dinner between Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and their top aides at the office of the Iran mission to the UN in Vienna. The full meeting begins Wednesday with a plenary meeting involving political directors from the P5+1 and Iran, chaired by Ashton and Zarif at the UN. It’s expected to continue at least through Friday.

Zarif, arriving in Vienna Tuesday, told Iranian media he expected at least three more rounds of political director talks before July 20, but those dates have not yet been announced.

The parties are “quite focused on the July 20 date” when the six month interim deal, known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), expires, the US diplomat said. “We expect to negotiate every moment ’til then.”

(Photo: Reuters.)

Former US officials detect shift in Israel on Iran nuclear deal

Israel increasingly expects that a nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers will be reached, and has raised concerns with U.S. interlocutors about monitoring and enforcement of the deal, former American officials and Iran policy experts involved in recent discussions with the Israelis tell Al-Monitor.

While Israel’s official position remains that the only acceptable Iran nuclear deal would be “zero, zero, zero,” – meaning no centrifuges, domestic uranium enrichment or plutonium, or the facilities to produce them—former American officials and experts involved in recent consultations with the Israelis detect that Israel’s position on the matter has shifted as the prospect of a deal being reached has increased. Israeli officials are now focusing on concerns of what happens if a deal is reached, how can monitoring and verification be sufficient to detect if there is a violation, and how would such violations of an agreement be deterred or punished, at a time when Israel assesses U.S. credibility as weakened on the world stage, including because of events in Ukraine and Syria.

Most Israeli officials and experts “seem to understand that ‘zero, zero, zero’ is not going to happen,” a member of a US group of experts and former senior officials recently in Israel for consultations, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor in an interview this week. They seem “to understand that there is a need for a domestic, indigenous civil nuclear program….for the Iranians to” deal with their domestic opposition.

“Israel is very concerned about the current discussions with Iran because all signs point to the P5+1 accepting a deal that will leave Iran’s nuclear weapons capability intact,” Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer told an Anti Defamation League conference this week.

“Our policy is simple,” Dermer said. “Let Iran have only a peaceful nuclear program and nothing more.”

“On substantive issues, there is probably room for maneuver,” a senior former US diplomat involved in the April consultations in Israel told Al-Monitor on condition he not be named, referring to Israel’s requirements for an Iran nuclear deal.

“But two issues are going to be very hard to persuade the Israelis on,” the former American diplomat continued. “Monitoring: There is very little belief anywhere in Israel that [a comprehensive nuclear] accord can be monitored… that ensures there is not going to be clandestine activity, and the Iranians [could] not break out” at some phase.

“That is a serious concern,” the former US diplomat said. “I don’t want to minimize it, because monitoring is going to be a huge problem. How long did we not know about [aspects] of [Iran’s] clandestine program,” such as Iran’s underground enrichment facility at Fordo, which Iran did not declare to the IAEA until days before the U.S., UK and France publicly exposed it in 2009.

The Israelis are also deeply concerned, the former US diplomat said, that if there is a violation by Iran of a final nuclear accord, that the violation will be seen by Washington as too ambiguous or incremental, that there “is no smoking gun.”

The Israelis are “nervous that the U.S. will continuously say, ‘we are checking into it, we need more proof,’” the former diplomat described. “At what point does the cumulative effect of the small things add up to a violation?”

In addition, the Israelis are concerned that the United States does not have a sufficiently credible military threat to deter a future Iranian violation of a comprehensive agreement, the Iran policy expert said. “That is problematic from an Israeli perspective.”

The Iran policy expert said it was her group’s assessment that while the Iran nuclear negotiations are ongoing, there won’t be a unilateral strike by Israel. “While they are ongoing,” she repeated.

There continues to be a lot of “frustration” from the Israeli side that they will be “profoundly impacted” by a nuclear deal, even though they are not in the room for the P5+1 talks with Iran, nor do they feel the U.S. was forthcoming with them about secret US-Iran bilateral contacts leading up to the interim nuclear deal last fall.

Israeli officials felt deeply betrayed that their US counterparts were not more forthcoming with them last year about the extent of secret US-Iranian bilateral contacts on a nuclear deal. The U.S. has said the secrecy was necessary to maintain the sensitive bilateral channel, and they did not mean to be deceptive. However, a sense of betrayal may have contributed to Israeli distrust and denunciations of the interim Iran nuclear deal reached in Geneva last November, US and Israeli sources have told Al-Monitor. The US and Israel have been working to try to rebuild trust that took a hit over the Iran back channel episode.

If a nuclear deal is reached that allows Iran to maintain a nuclear threshold capacity, it could emerge from economic sanctions and seek European and Japanese technology to develop itself as an industrial power, while maintaining antagonistic policies in the region, Israeli sources have described official thinking in interviews this week.

Israel and Sunni powers fear Iran would be empowered by the lifting of sanctions after a prospective nuclear deal, while sponsoring actions and proxy groups that pose a threat to their stability, and competing for power and influence in the region and beyond.

Former US and international officials involved in track 2 conversations with Iran have been considering the utility of such a format to try to address deep regional mistrust of Iran amid the growing prospect that it could emerge from diplomatic and economic isolation if a nuclear deal s reached.

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the White House on March 5, 2012 in Washington, DC. By Amos Ben Gershom/Israel GPO via Getty Images.)

US expected to tap Iraq envoy for Cairo

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft is expected to be nominated to be the next US envoy to Egypt, U.S. officials and diplomatic sources tell Al-Monitor, after the Cairo embassy has been without a full-time U.S. ambassador for several months.

Beecroft, who has served as the top American diplomat in Baghdad since 2012, is a career foreign service officer who previously served as executive assistant to both then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, as well as former US Ambassador to Jordan. He has also served at US embassies in Riyadh, Damascus and in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and Executive Secretariat.

Al-Monitor previously reported that current US envoy to Jordan Stuart Jones is expected to be nominated to succeed Beecroft as US ambassador to Iraq.

Neither Beecroft nor Jones responded to queries.

The anticipated nominations come as Secretary of State John Kerry informed Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy Tuesday that he will certify to Congress that Egypt is complying with its strategic commitments to the US to counter terrorism and proliferation as well as with the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the State Department said in a read-out of the phone call Tuesday. The certification is expected to make way for the US to release Apache helicopters to Egypt.

Kerry, in the call, however, “noted that he is not yet able to certify that Egypt is taking steps to support a democratic transition,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Fahmy is due to travel to Washington next week, after a stop in San Francisco. Kerry is also scheduled to meet with Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate Mohamed Farid El-Tohamy at the State Department Wednesday.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson left Cairo last August, and was confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs in December. Then-US Syria envoy Robert Ford had been expected to succeed her, but the nomination did not proceed, amid lingering Egyptian suspicions that the US was sympathetic to Egypt’s ousted, elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi and associated Islamist factions in Syria’s rebel movement. Ford retired from the State Department at the end of February.

Separately, the Atlantic Council announced Wednesday that US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone Jr., will become its vice president and director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Continue reading

Possible Arak compromise seen bolstering confidence in Iran talks


Iran and six world powers are closer to agreement on possible technical modifications for the uncompleted Arak reactor that would greatly reduce proliferation concerns, bolstering negotiators’ confidence as they try to reach a final nuclear deal by July 20th, Iranian and US non-proliferation experts briefed on the discussions said.

The Arak issue “is almost solved,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator now at Princeton University, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“I think Arak has been the big area where there has been a narrowing” of differences between Iran and the P5+1, Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“Both sides are being positive in their remarks,” Fitzpatrick said. “Part of this positive spin [is that] they are reaching a solution to Arak.”

The possible compromise framework, Mousavian said, is “almost the same” as a plan proposed by a team of Princeton University nuclear experts led by Frank von Hippel in an article entitled ‘A Win-Win Solution on Iran’s Arak reactor,’ that was published this month by Arms Control Today.

“I believe Tehran and the US both agree this framework can work to resolve” the matter, Mousavian said.

Under the plan proposed by von Hippel and colleagues, “the amount of plutonium produced in the Arak reactor could be reduced drastically” by converting “the reactor from using natural uranium fuel to low-enriched uranium fuel,” they write. “With low-enriched fuel, the power could be reduced to 20 or even 10 MWt,” from the reactor’s currently-planned 40-Mwt design, “further reducing plutonium production,” they write.

Their redesign proposals “would reduce plutonium production to less than 1 kilogram per year, comparable to the reduction that would be accomplished by replacing the Arak reactor with a light-water research reactor,” the authors write.

“At the same time, these redesigns would not reduce the usefulness of the reactor for making radioisotopes and conducting research,” they wrote. “Thus, this approach would meet Iran’s needs and would address the concerns of the international community.”

Such modifications, that would “reduce the overall power level of the reactor, and thus decrease the amount of plutonium available in the spent fuel it yields, would indeed significantly reduce the proliferation threat,” Jofi Joseph, a former US government Iran non-proliferation expert said.

“However, this compromise could still run into political opposition from Israel, Gulf States, and the U.S. Congress,” Joseph added, because it still “allows Arak to remain a heavy water moderated reactor. …[which] is not necessary for the production of medical isotopes.”

Mousavian estimated that about 60-70% of the issues for a final nuclear deal may be tentatively agreed or nearly agreed–a slightly more upbeat estimate than the 50-60% offered by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at nuclear talks in Vienna earlier this month.

US negotiators have previously said that no issue is agreed until all of the issues are agreed, and have compared the complex negotiations to a Rubik’s cube.

Among the outstanding issues still to be resolved are Fordo and the overall size of Iran’s enrichment program and the duration of limitations on its size, experts said.

Former State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn, in a paper published by the Brookings Institution last month, proposed that Fordo be converted into a Research & Development facility. He also proposed that Iran and the P5+1 could arrive at a compromise on the size of Iran’s enrichment program by defining its practical needs, which are limited in the medium term.

(Photo: This Aug. 26, 2006 file photo shows an aerial view of a heavy-water production plant in the central Iranian town of Arak. AP Photo/ ISNA, Arash Khamoushi, File)

Mystery solved? US-registered plane in Iran owned by Ghana firm


The mystery of a US-registered plane spotted at a Tehran airport this week and reported on by the New York Times has apparently been solved.

The US-registered Bombardier corporate jet, carrying the registration number N604EP, is owned and operated by a Ghana-based engineering firm, an aviation expert said Friday. The visitors it bought to Iran last week were senior Ghanaian officials, an Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman said Friday.

The plane was chartered by Ghanaian officials, no American was on board, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told Iranian media Friday, journalist Mojtaba Mousavi and Shargh newspaper reported.

Tyler Bowron, an aviation expert at Cerretanni Aviation group in Boulder, Colorado, told Al-Monitor that the company that in fact owns and operates the plane is called Engineers and Planners, based in Accra, Ghana.

The Ghana firm “owns and operates” the plane, Bowron told Al-Monitor. Bank of Utah, which is listed on Federal Aviation Agency records as the trustee for the 22-seat corporate jet, “is just the trustee,” Bowron said. “They have nothing to do with it.”

The New York Times first reported Thursday on the mystery of the US “N-registered” plane seen by the paper at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport on Tuesday. The Blaze first reported Bowron’s identification of the Ghana firm that owns and operates the plane.

A Bank of Utah spokesperson said the bank was solely acting as a trustee for the airplane’s real owner.

“Bank of Utah… acts as trustee for aircraft of behalf of the beneficiary,” Scott H. Parkinson, senior vice president for marketing at the Bank of Utah, told Al-Monitor by email Friday. “The Bank has no operational control, financial exposure and is not a lender for this transaction.”

“The Bank’s trust agreements do not allow aircraft be used in any illegal activity,” Parkinson said.

International law experts said the US-registered plane, even if owned by a foreign entity, would have probably required a temporary sojourn license from the US Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) to legally visit Iran. US officials declined to comment Friday on the specific facts of this case.

“We can’t comment on license applications or requests,” a Treasury Department spokesperson told Al-Monitor Friday.

U.S. Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (“ITSR”) prohibit the exportation of goods, services or technology directly or indirectly from the United States or by a U.S. person to Iran, and would generally prevent U.S.-registered aircraft from flying to Iran.

“A determination as to whether a violation of the ITSR has occurred is fact specific,” a source familiar with the matter, who requested anonymity, said.

The Ghana firm said to own the plane, Engineers and Planners, “was formed in 1997 to provide mining, construction and engineering services to the many mining companies that were setting up in Ghana at the time,” the firm said in a 2012 statement  concerning a plane it had acquired and would offer for lease.

“Recently, the company has entered into an agreement with an American Company to provide it with air services using a challenger 600 aircraft,” the company statement continued. “The arrangement makes the aircraft commercially available for rental by mining companies, oil service companies and other corporate institutions when not in use by Engineers and Planners.”

The company press statement identified its CEO as Mr. Ibrahim Mahama, the younger brother of Ghana’s then-Vice President H.E. John Dramani Mahama, who became Ghana’s president in July, 2012.

Engineers and Planner’s listed executive director, Adi Ayitevie, previously served as procurement manager at a Maryland-based firm, MNM Communications, that received several U.S. government contracts to provide construction services at US embassies abroad and domestic facilities, including the FBI academy at Quantico, according to his Linkedin bio and the firm’s client list.

Iranian and Ghanaian officials have in meetings over the past year proclaimed mutual interest in cooperating on mining and other economic development projects, media reports show.

It is common for foreign entities to acquire US “N-registered” aircraft, using trusteeships such as those provided by the Bank of Utah, that conceal the owner’s identity, aviation and legal experts said.

(Photo of a US-registered corporate jet at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport last Tuesday by Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times.)

U.S. releases funds to Iran as IAEA verifies compliance with nuclear deal


The United States said Thursday that it has released the latest tranche of $450 million to Iran based on verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency this week that Iran is complying with the terms of a six month interim nuclear deal.

The announcement came as US officials said that the US has taken steps to resolve problems Iran was alleged to have had accessing some funds.

“We can confirm that we have taken the necessary steps in all good faith pursuant to the Joint Plan of Action to facilitate the release of certain Iranian funds in the installments agreed,” a Treasury Department spokesperson, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported to its Board of Governors this week that Iran has diluted 75% of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium since the six month Joint Plan of Action went into effect on January 20th, Reuters reported Thursday.

“Based on this confirmation and consistent with commitments that the United States made under the Joint Plan of Action, the Department of Treasury took the necessary steps… to facilitate the release of a $450 million installment of Iran’s frozen funds,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told journalists at the State Department press briefing Thursday.

“As Iran remains in line with its commitments under the JPOA, the the US … will continue to uphold our commitments as well,” Harf said.

Iranian officials, under fire from hardliners suspicious of the nuclear negotiations, echoed the assessment that the six world powers were delivering the sanctions relief promised in the deal.

Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister and nuclear negotiator, told Iran’s IRNA news agency Tuesday that to date, four installments of Iran’s frozen oil sale proceeds have been released to Iran per the deal’s terms, and that the “Central Bank of Iran has no problem in having access” to the funds, IRNA reported  Wednesday.

A fifth installment was expected to be released on Wednesday, IRNA cited Ravanchi.

Under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action, Iran is to receive a total of $4.2 billion in its oil sale proceeds held in foreign bank accounts, delivered in eight installments over six months, based on IAEA verification of its compliance.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif likewise defended the nuclear negotiations this week and said he believed both sides wanted to get a final deal and were negotiating in good faith.

“There is the political will to get an answer,” Zarif told Reuters in Abu Dhabi April 15th.  “The domestic audience will be satisfied if we have a good deal. Of course some people will never be satisfied but that is fine because we have a pluralistic society.”

Negotiators from Iran and six world powers have held three rounds of talks in Vienna this year and are set to begin drafting the text of a final nuclear accord at their next meeting in May, with the aim of trying to conclude an agreement by the July 20th expiration of the interim deal.

Ahead of the fourth round of talks, to be held in Vienna starting on May 13th, experts from Iran and the P5+1 will hold expert-level talks on the sidelines of a NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in New York the first week of May, Zarif said this week.