Iran nuclear diplomat known to U.S. as tough, professional

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When lead US negotiator Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi and their teams met on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna this week, US officials described the now commonplace encounter between the U.S. and Iranian delegations as “useful and professional.”

“It’s now normal,” a senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution, described the bilateral meeting with Araghchi to journalists at a briefing in Vienna on April 9. “We met for about an hour and a half. … We make sure that Iran understands our perspective on all of the issues under discussion, and they’re able to tell us directly their views about our views.”

“Mr. Araghchi is a very professional negotiator and also a tough negotiator,” Sherman told Al-Monitor by email on April 11.

Araghchi, 53, the lone holdover from Saeed Jalili’s nuclear negotiating team, has previously served as Iran’s envoy to Japan, Asian affairs deputy and, briefly during Iran’s presidential campaign and transition last summer, as the spokesman for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Since Hassan Rouhani tapped Mohammad Javad Zarif as Iran’s foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator last August, Araghchi has been a key player in the nuclear talks that produced an interim deal last November, and a principal interlocutor in bilateral discussions with the United States aimed at advancing a comprehensive nuclear accord.

While Zarif’s willingness to engage with US officials was perhaps not surprising — the affable Iranian diplomat spent almost 20 years in the United States, earning graduate degrees and serving as Iran’s UN envoy in New York during the moderate Mohammad Khatami administration — his deputy Araghchi is less well-known to Western audiences.

Though Araghchi earned a doctoral degree at Kent University in the United Kingdom and speaks fluent English, he is not one of Zarif’s so-called “New York gang” or “New Yorkers,” as the Iranian diplomats who studied in the United States and served with Zarif in New York have been dubbed at home. A career diplomat who ascended under then-Iran Foreign Ministers Ali Akbar Velayati and Kamal Kharazi, Araghchi is “not political,” an Iranian scholar, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. But it turns out that Araghchi was not entirely unknown to US officials before he was tapped as Zarif’s deputy last August and became part of the Iranian delegation that secretly met with U.S. officials a half dozen times in Oman, New York and Geneva last fall to try to advance a nuclear deal.

Interviews with former officials by Al-Monitor and US diplomatic cables indicate that Araghchi had a previous engagement with the Americans, at a regional summit in Iraq in March 2007, in which he impressed one observer as “extremely professional,” and constructive in the proceedings, in a rare departure from what were otherwise frustrating and unproductive US-Iranian encounters on Iraq at the time.

Araghchi subsequently appeared on the Americans’ radar as a highly effective and press-savvy Iran ambassador to Japan in 2008, in a move some US diplomatic interlocutors read as an effort by the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to “protect” Araghchi from Iran’s hard-line then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, US diplomatic cables show. Other US cables suggest that Araghchi played a quietly helpful background role in urging for the release of an Iranian-American reporter acquaintance, Roxana Saberi, who was arrested in Iran in January 2009.

“Araghchi is a young, personable, polished and accomplished diplomat who presents well, argues his case calmly and rationally and who is clearly at ease making public presentations and dealing with the press,” then-US Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer wrote in a March 2008 diplomatic cable to Washington about his newly arrived Iranian diplomatic counterpart in Tokyo.

One Japanese diplomat “told Embassy Tokyo,” Schieffer’s cable continued, that then-former “Foreign Minister Taro Aso speculated after meeting him … that if the US and Iran were to resume diplomatic relations, Araghchi would be a likely candidate to become ambassador to Washington.”

Araghchi, then — as now — Iran’s deputy foreign minister for international and legal affairs, led Iran’s delegation to a summit of Iraq’s neighbors in Baghdad in March 2007, attended as well by then-US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and then-State Department Iraq coordinator David Satterfield. The meeting came amid growing US frustration at Iran’s support for Iraq “special groups” conducting attacks against US-led coalition and Iraqi forces. Iran denied providing such support, while at the time making repeated overtures to the Americans that it would be interested to engage on Iraq, US cables show. The United States pursued several trilateral meetings with the Iranians on Iraq during 2007, but ultimately determined they were fruitless and counterproductive. But not so at the first meeting attended by Araghchi in March 2007.

“That recollection stays with me … the wholly professional conduct of the Iranian delegation, but particularly the Deputy Foreign Minister [Araghchi], which was quite striking,” a firsthand observer of the meeting, who requested to speak anonymously, told Al-Monitor in an interview on April 10. Continue reading

Diplomats: Agenda, timetable agreed for Iran final deal talks

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Vienna__ Diplomats from Iran and six world powers said Wednesday they had agreed on an agenda of issues and a timetable of meetings to proceed in negotiating a comprehensive Iran nuclear accord.

The framework agenda includes the issues that will need to be addressed and a timetable for trying to reach an agreement in six months, one diplomat from the P5+1, speaking not for attribution, described here Wednesday.

“We have [a] timetable of meetings and identification of issues,” a Western official at the talks, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor late Wednesday..

A framework agreement has been reached, an Iranian negotiator affirmed to Al- Monitor late Wednesday evening just after talks broke for the night. The Islamic Republic News Agency, citing Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, reported late Wednesday that a framework agreement had been reached, and a next round of talks would be held in Vienna in mid to late March.

“This round of talks has been productive and useful,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf, in Vienna, told journalists on a State Department press conference call Wednesday. “We do think we have made some progress in the past two days.”

Talks, which began on Tuesday, are expected to wrap up on Thursday midday. In part, the cut off time seemed influenced by the fact that lead international negotiator, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, summoned EU foreign ministers to Brussels for an emergency meeting on the Ukraine crisis Thursday at 2pm.

Iranian officials have also said the talks are going well. But like their P5+1 counterparts, they have said little to the press since talks got underway here Tuesday.

“it’s not finished yet, but overall it’s positive,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Wednesday evening as he departed the negotiations venue. He said he didn’t know if there would be anything on paper, but thought there would be a framework completed by Thursday.

The negotiations over the structure, sequence and organization of the final deal talks require heavy lifting on the front end in part to keep everybody on board. Apparently, provisional details were not worked out in advance through bilateral channels in order to avoid any surprises, said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group. But the complications of the forthcoming negotiations are likely going to require bilateral consultations once the framework is agreed, he said.

The issues “are not black and white,” Vaez told Al- Monitor Wednesday. “The scale of the problem is such that figuring out mechanisms for tackling them, without any doubt, is going to be extremely complicated.”

“A confidential channel [as a way] to break deadlock on the nuclear talks is now needed to start gaining understanding on issues of common interest [and] in order to consolidate this process,” Vaez said. “Start somewhere, start where [you] have common interests.”

But Iran to date has not authorized Iranian officials to negotiate with American counterparts on issues beyond the nuclear file, Vaez said.

“I think it’s been clear from day one that [Iranian Supreme Leader Aytaollah] Khamenei does not want to put all his cards on the table,” Vaez said. “From his standpoint, if Iran puts all the issues on the table, it will be interpreted by the United States as Iran being in a position of weakness….The general policy of the Iran government is not to engage on these [other] issues, lest the US have the impression Iran is seeking a broader compromise.”

EU, Iran reach agreement on implementing nuclear deal


Diplomats from Iran and the European Union said Friday that they were able to reach agreement on implementing the Iran nuclear accord. Pending review by capitals of six world powers, an announcement on a start date for the accord to go into force could come as soon as the weekend.

Negotiators “made very good progress on all the pertinent issues,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU, said Friday. “This is now under validation at political level in capitals.”

The announcement came after two days of talks in Geneva between European Union deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.  Lead US negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, accompanied by her non-proliferation advisor James Timbie and Treasury Department’s Adam Szubin, also held bilateral meetings in Geneva Thursday with Araghchi’s team as well as met with Schmid, the State Department said.

“A final decision is to be made in capitals and a result to be announced within the next two days, ” Araghchi told Iranian media Friday.

The progress in Geneva came as Iran sanctions legislation opposed by the White House had by Friday attracted a total of 59 Senate co-sponsors, not yet the 67 needed to override a presidential veto.

But notably, the bill has gotten mostly GOP support, attracting only two Democrats and 25 Republicans as co-sponsors since it was first introduced last month by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois). Continue reading

Sherman heads to Geneva for Iran nuclear talks

US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman will travel to Geneva later this week for talks on implementing the interim Iran nuclear accord, the State Department will announce Wednesday, Al-Monitor has learned.

Negotiators from Iran and six world powers hope to try to finalize agreement on implementing the Joint Plan of Action signed in Geneva November 24th.

Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi and European Union deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid are due to meet bilaterally in Geneva, starting with a dinner Thursday night and continuing on Friday, an EU spokesperson told Al-Monitor. That suggests that Sherman’s meetings with Iran may be held bilaterally as well.

Political directors from the other members of the P5+1 were not expected to be in Geneva, sources said.

Western and Iranian officials have said there are one or two remaining issues to be finalized. Both sides have said they hope to begin implementation of the Joint Plan of Action by the end of the month.

Update: “In Geneva on January 9, Under Secretary Sherman will hold meetings with European External Action Service Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs Helga Schmid and with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi to discuss the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action agreed to by the P5+1 and Iran,” the State Department announced Wednesday.

Iran reports progress at talks with P5+1


Iranian negotiators said they had made good progress in talks with experts from six world powers in Geneva Monday, but said a few further issues remain to be worked out at a follow up meeting next week.

We “reached good progress in Geneva,” an Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor by email Tuesday.

There are “still a few items [that] need to be hammered out after the holidays,” he said, without elaborating on what those are.

The two sides “achieved mutual understanding on implementation [of] the nuclear deal,” Hamid Baidinejad, the head of the Iranian delegation to the technical talks, was cited by Iran’s ISNA news agency Tuesday.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi and European Union deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid will meet to address remaining issues next week, Araghchi told Iranian media, saying experts talks had gone til 430am in Geneva.

“Experts talks took place yesterday. Experts will now report back to capitals,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton, said Tuesday. “Contacts will be continued in order to finalise a common understanding of implementation.”

Araghchi was photographed with numerous other Iranian officials attending the wake for the mother of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday. Among the other Iranian personages seen at the service were Iranian Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, foreign policy advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbbar Velayati, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian, and hardline Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari who was photographed embracing Zarif.

(Photo by Mehr news agency of former Iranian foreign minister and AEOI chief Ali Akbar Salehi greeting Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the wake for Zarif’s mother held in Iran Monday, December 30, 2013. By Javad Hadi, Mehr News Agency)

Centrifuge R&D seen as holdup in implementing Iran nuclear deal

Differing interpretations over whether Iran can conduct research on more advanced centrifuges under a nuclear deal signed last month is among the key issues to be resolved for the agreement to enter into force, nonproliferation experts suggested Sunday.

Technical experts from Iran and six world powers are scheduled to resume talks on implementing the Joint Plan of Action in Geneva on Monday, December 30th.

“What may be happening here is that Iran has notified the P5+1 that it plans to install additional IR-2M centrifuges at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Facility at Natanz where it has historically conducted centrifuge research and development,” Jofi Joseph, a former US official who worked on Iran nuclear issues, told Al-Monitor.

“Throughout the diplomatic talks that culminated in the Geneva agreement, Iran has insisted upon the right to continue unfettered research and development for its centrifuge program that should fall outside any limits on its centrifuges producing enriched uranium,” said Joseph, who recently wrote about potential pitfalls to the Nov. 24 interim Iran nuclear deal at the Atlantic Council website. “The P5+1 always pushed back, seeking to protect against a scenario where Iran could use this R&D loophole as a back door to expand its centrifuge capacity even as a [confidence building measure] CBM agreement took effect.”

The Joint Plan of Action, signed by Iran and the P5+1 November 24th, states that: “Iran will continue its safeguarded R&D practices, including its current enrichment R&D practices, which are not designed for accumulation of the enriched uranium.”

“The P5+1 likely interprets this language to mean that Iran will not expand the level, scope,or sophistication of its centrifuge R&D beyond existing practice,” Joseph suggested. “While Iran probably takes a more expansive view, arguing instead that, so long as it not expanding the numbers or types of centrifuges in the production-related areas of Natanz or Fordow, it remains in compliance with the Geneva agreement.”

Iranian negotiators did not respond to a query from Al-Monitor Saturday if that was the main issue holding up the JPA entering into force. But Iranian officials seemed to allude to the matter in comments to Iranian news media this week. “A new generation of centrifuges is being built, but they should undergo all tests before mass production,” Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and MIT-educated former Iranian foreign minister, was cited by Iranian news media as saying Sunday.

“The negotiations are proceeding slowly as there are misunderstandings over interpretation of some elements of the accord,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister and deputy nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi told Mehr News Agency, the AFP reported Sunday, adding that “ff expert-level talks are fruitful, a date [for implementing the deal] will be decided, which I guess will be at the end of January.”

The parties should be able to resolve such ambiguities and differences to make way for the JPA entering into force, nonproliferation expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Al-Monitor in an interview Sunday.  “This is not a technical problem,” Hibbs said. “There’s a huge amount of documentation – reams and reams and reams of technical discussion between Iran and the US, [on] how to do this….[there are] lots of ways of skinning the cat.”

Negotiators in Geneva last fall, led by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, made the deal in a hurry. “Now what they need to do is nail down all the technical details,” Hibbs said. “What needs to happen [to] close on some of this stuff is just very complicated…for example, verification procedures…questions about what specific piping they have to inspect, who gets access, all these things.”

“The real problem is not that there cannot be a technical solution. Because there can,” Hibbs said. “The real problem is [that] the absence of closure on technical details [could] reignite all of the latent lack of trust.”

But he did not think the parties would let the agreement break down. The Obama administration sees the agreement as “confidence-building; there’s a premium on deal-making,” Hiibbs said. “And the Iranians, like anyone else, want to get the best deal they can.”

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations Palais in Geneva November 24, 2013. Credit: REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool.)

Kerry, Zarif discuss way forward on Iran nuclear deal

20131124-060420.jpgUS Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Saturday about how to move forward on implementing the Iran nuclear deal, US and Iranian officials said Monday.

Kerry called Zarif from his flight from Israel to Vietnam Saturday, a senior State Department official said Monday, after the conversation was alluded to by Zarif in an interview with the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and subsequently confirmed by the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

Kerry and Zarif “discussed the importance of moving forward on implementation of the Joint Plan of Action they agreed to in Geneva and of maintaining a constructive atmosphere as the negotiations continue,” the senior State Department official said. “The conversation was focused on the way forward.”

“I’ve been in contact with American officials as well as other 5+1 officials, as well as [European Union chief diplomat] Cathy Ashton,” Zarif told Ignatius. “And everybody is trying to seek possibilities to move forward.”

“What I have heard from Secretary Kerry and Lady Ashton is that they are committed to an early finalization of the Geneva process with a view to reaching a comprehensive agreement,” Zarif said. “I share that objective. I’m sure that we will hit other obstacles on our way.”

Asked by Ignatius if he was alluding to recent conversations, Zarif responded: “Well, we’ve never stopped communicating, and conversations have taken place.”

Separately, European Union foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels Monday, agreed to suspend the EU sanctions on Iran spelled out in the Joint Pian of Action after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified Iran’s implementation of certain measures, a statement from the European Council said. Continue reading

Exclusive: Burns led secret US back channel to Iran


Geneva, Switzerland __ Deputy Secretary of State William Burns has led a secret U.S. back channel to Iran going back to before the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, U.S. officials told Al-Monitor.

Burns was tapped to lead the US diplomatic effort to establish a bilateral channel with Iran, which gained momentum after the exchange of letters between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Rouhani in early August, US officials said. Led by Burns, the US’s second highest ranking diplomat and a former lead US Iran nuclear negotiator, the US effort to form direct contacts with Iran also includes two officials from the Obama White House: Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, and Puneet Talwar, the National Security Staff senior director for Iran, Iraq, and Persian Gulf affairs, US officials confirmed. Talwar’s role in back channel discussions with Iran was previously reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Following the exchange of letters between Obama and Rouhani in August, “Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts,” several times over the past few months, starting before the UN General Assembly opening session in September and in Geneva this month, a senior U.S. Administration official told Al-Monitor in an interview late Friday.

President Obama referred obliquely to the establishment of a direct U.S.-Iranian channel in a statement from the White House after negotiators for six world powers and Iran reached a nuclear deal here in Geneva tonight.

“We have pursued intensive diplomacy – bilaterally with the Iranians, and together with our P5+1 partners: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, as well as the European Union,” Obama said from the White House Saturday. “Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure – a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”

Al-Monitor learned that Burns was in Geneva during the second round of nuclear talks between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, UK, France, Russia, China) plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran held here November 7-9, and subsequently learned additional details about the bilateral channel, but agreed to hold the story at the administration’s request until the conclusion of the third round of nuclear talks that ended here in a breakthrough tonight.

Al-Monitor also learned that Burns is currently in Geneva during this round of Iran nuclear negotiations. Both times, he did not stay at the main diplomatic hotel, the Intercontinental, where many of the negotiations have taken place, but at another site, the US official said. Talwar has been seen by journalists at bus stops in the city and running towards the hotel at various times during the last three rounds of talks here; it could not be confirmed if he was relaying messages between the discussions taking place on site at the hotel, where the US, European and Iranian delegations stay, to Burns at another site.

US officials did not confirm by name which Iranian officials participated in the meetings with Burns. Al-Monitor has learned that they involved two of his diplomatic counterparts, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, the top deputies on the Iranian nuclear negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iranian officials did not respond to previous queries from Al-Monitor about alleged meetings with Burns.

“You know we have always said that we are open to bilateral discussions with Iran, in addition to the P5+1,” the senior US administration official told al-Monitor in an interview. “But this was always with the understanding that the nuclear negotiations were going to be resolved through the P5+1 even if other bilateral channels were going on.”

Burns’ first sit-down with the Iranians occurred before the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, the US official said, and helped bring about the 30-minute meeting between Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the UN September 26, 2013, as well as the historic Obama-Rouhani phone call on September 27th, the first conversation between the presidents of the two countries in over thirty years. The US official declined to say where the two Burns-led meetings with the Iranians occurred before UNGA; there have, in all, been “several,” the US official said.

“Bill [Burns] knows the Iranians, and he knows the issue really well,” the senior US administration official told Al-Monitor to explain why he was tapped for the sensitive mission.

Burns, only the second career US foreign service officer to be confirmed as deputy secretary of state, previously served as the lead US negotiator at P5+1 talks with Iran from 2008-2011, including at October 2009 talks in Geneva at which then Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili agreed to a nuclear fuel swap deal that Iran later backed away from amid domestic political criticism. In July 2011, when Burns was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State, he turned over the Iran/P5+1 nuclear negotiating file to his successor, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who has led the US negotiating team to the last eight rounds of P5+1 talks with Iran that culminated in an agreememt here.

Burns also previously served as US Ambassador to Russia from 2005 until 2008, and as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 until 2005. Zarif, tapped by Rouhani as foreign minister and top nuclear negotiator in August, previously served as the Iranian ambassador to the UN in New York in the early 2000s, during a brief period of testing for more constructive US-Iranian relations, including on Afghanistan in 2001.

“Running up to the [June] 2013 Iranian election, there was a sense that we had to wait and see if the Iranians under the new administration were serious about negotiations,” the US official said. “And it became clear after the Rouhani election, that they seem serious.”

“Following the election, as has been reported, Obama sent Rouhani a letter that was delivered in early August,” the official said. “Following the exchange of letters between the two presidents, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts before UNGA.”

“In those conversations, Burns and his team began to develop ideas that could be fed into the P5+1 process,” the US official said. “All of our bilateral discussions are designed to support and advance the P5+1 process; they have never been designed as a substitute. “

“As the P5+1 negotiations started picking up, Burns was joined as needed by [Under Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman,” the US official said. “They worked together to develop ideas that could be further negotiated with the P5+1. The goal, everything in the bilateral channel, was to be fed into the P5+1 channel,” the official stressed.

The US has notified P5+1 partners about the bilateral channel, the US official said, but would not disclose when. “We briefed them on the bilateral channel at the appropriate time,” the US official said. There are signs that at least some P5+1 partners were not aware of it at the second round of nuclear talks in Geneva Nov 7-9, during which the six world powers spent much of the meeting agreeing on their own text which they finally presented to Zarif late November 9.

“At the second and third rounds [of P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva], Burns was present on the margins, to be available to the P5+1 and the Iranians, and to make sure the ideas discussed were integrated back into the P5+1,” the US official said.

“Given that so much of the economic pressure on Iran comes from the United States among other reasons, that is one reason it was important to establish this direct channel,” the official said. “Our P5+1 partners all encouraged us to have a bilateral channel, and they all have their own. And they told us, eventually to get an agreement…these discussions would be necessary.”

“None of the substance in the bilateral channel differed from the P5+1,” the US official stressed. “New issues weren’t raised. It enabled more detailed discussions [to occur] in the P5+1. It’s not like any of the issues are a secret.”

Talwar has served as the top Iran advisor to the Obama White House since 2009, and previously served as a professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when it was chaired by then Senator, now Vice President Biden.

Sullivan, previously deputy chief of staff to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during Obama’s first term, became Vice President Biden’s national security advisor early this year, after Clinton stepped down from the job.

White House press officials have previously deflected queries from Al-Monitor about possible, rumored meetings involving US and Iranian officials. An NSC official suggested to Al-Monitor last week, for instance, in response to a query, that Sullivan could not be part of a meeting with Iranians because he was last week traveling with Biden in Texas and Panama. Sullivan did not respond to a query from Al-Monitor Saturday.

Similarly, the State Department’s official public schedules have regularly dissembled about Burns’ whereabouts. During both the second and current round of P5+1 Iran nuclear talks in Geneva this month, the State Department schedule said Burns was attending meetings at the White House and State Department, when Al-Monitor has confirmed that he was in fact in Geneva, even in advance of the rest of the US negotiating team. That was apparently at the direction of Burns’ office to the State Department press officer who puts together the schedules, the official said.

“We thought it important to have these discussions [with the Iranians] discreetly, given the amount of ground we had to cover, lots of it very complicated,” the US official said Friday. However, the official added, “while in some respects” the US-Iran channel “had to be secretive, it is not a surprise.”

(Photo: Deputy Secretary Burns leads the U.S. delegation at the UNHCR High-Level Segment on Syrian Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. State Dept Image / Sep 30, 2013.)

Gaps narrowing as Iran nuclear talks continue

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Geneva __ A second day of high level of nuclear talks broke for the night here Thursday with Iranian and western negotiators saying progress was being being made in narrowing gaps, but four or five issues still remain to be resolved and need more time. Talks are set to continue here Friday and are very likely to extend into the weekend.

A day “of intense, substantial and detailed negotiations on Iran nuclear programme, conducted in good atmosphere,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said Thursday. “Talks continue tomorrow.”

There are fewer and fewer gaps between the two sides, “the process is efficient, we have a very deep treatment” of the issues, a senior European diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said Thursday of the days’ discussions.

“Some big obstacles [to an accord] have been removed, but not all of them,” the European diplomat said. There are still about four to five elements on the table for negotiation, he said, most of them pertaining to the first phase of the agreement, which is intended to halt the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program over the course of six months while a comprehensive agreement is negotiated.

There is “no rupture with the Iranians, but it doesn’t mean agreement tomorrow,” the European diplomat said. “There is a feeling something could happen tomorrow, or after tomorrow,” but there’s no guarantee, he said. If an accord is reached over the next day, P5+1 foreign ministers could possibly come on Saturday.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, speaking to Iranian media after the talks Thursday, said negotiations on differences in the text of a draft nuclear accord continue. Given that some of the P5+1 delegations “are to consult with their respective capitals and considering time differences, it may last until morning, so there would be no [further] meeting for tonight,” the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.

Among the issues to be resolved concerns language in the text on enrichment, an analyst briefed by negotiators told Al-Monitor. Specifically, he understood, language in the P5+1 proposal given to Iran at the end of the last meeting November 9th would permanently limit Iran’s enrichment, and would never let Iran be treated as a normal member of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the analyst understood.

Another issue is thought to be a demand on the Arak facility, an issue the Iranians told the P5+1 at the Nov. 9 meeting would not be acceptable, and which remains so now, at least without additional sanctions relief, the analyst said.

The Iranians pressed to break for the evening Thursday under the apparent impression that the Americans, who have been consulting with Washington, may be getting further guidance or instructions, the analyst said.

The chemistry and conversations with the Americans are positive, but on some issues we are still far apart, an Iranian negotiator described to the analyst.

A member of the American negotiating team, according to another analyst here, on Thursday described this round of negotiations with the Iranians as fascinating, fun, and ‘we’re close.’

Diplomats seek to narrow gaps to close Iran nuclear deal

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Geneva__ Diplomats from six world powers and Iran said today (Nov. 20) that they would try to narrow gaps to reach a nuclear agreement, but didn’t yet know if they would succeed by the end of this week.

“I sensed a real commitment…from both sides,” a senior western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said Wednesday. “Will it happen? We will see. But as always the devil is in the details.”

“We know what the remaining gaps are, let’s go to work, let’s see if we can get there in a way that is balanced, where all parties feel like this is a good agreement that heads us in the direction of the comprehensive agreement,” a senior U.S. Administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists here Wednesday, on the eve of the third round of high level talks here in under five weeks.

Amid unusually heavy diplomatic and police security, diplomats did not deny the possibility that if agreement is reached in the coming days, that P5+1 foreign ministers might come to Geneva for a signing ceremony, possibly as early as Friday.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is “open to going if it would continue to help narrow the gaps,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told journalists at the Dtate Department press briefing Wednesday. “He has not made a decision at this point to go, but obviously, we’re in close touch with the negotiating team and will make a decision, clearly, in the next 36 hours here.”

The main Geneva hotel used by the diplomat delegations kicked out several people with confirmed reservations Wednesdsy in seeming anticipation of more diplomatic arrivals and their security and press entourages.

Events began Wednesday with internal meetings among the P5+1 political directors. Then Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hosted European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her team for a working lunch at the Iranian mission that western diplomats described as very positive.

“There is a sense of strong commitment on both sides but important differences need to be narrowed down,” the western diplomat described the lunch meeting with the Iranians.

The six western powers and Iran then held a very brief plenary session at the Palais des Nations -just ten minutes–before breaking for a series Iran bilateral meetings, including with the Russians and the Europeans. Those meetings ran long, and a brief bilateral meeting between Iranian negotiators, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, and the US team, led by Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, was held, a senior State Department official said, adding they expected to meet again on Thursday.

“We did have a very brief bilateral meeting at the Palais des Nations with the Iranians [Wednesday] evening,” the State Department official said Thuraday. “Because other meetings ran long, the Iranians had to leave to go see their Foreign Minister [Zarif] for consultations, so we will find more time during the day today to continue those discussions.”

Of the remaining gaps, the western diplomat indicated they mostly concerned technical details in the first phase of the agreement, involving issues such as timelines.

“The deal has to be sustainable, spelled out in detail,” the western diplomat said. “It is important to have clear understanding on technical elements in order to ensure a robust and viable agreement. This needs to be done in a proper way – we will take the time we need.”

But the official seemed taken aback by a query if such details could take til the end of the year to sort out, saying they wanted to finish it well before then.