Iran reports progress at talks with P5+1

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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.)

Jordan hails US-Russia plans for Syria peace conference


Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, meeting with US Secretary of state John Kerry in Rome Thursday, threw his support behind the US-Russian call for a Syria peace conference later this month. With over 500,000 Syrian refugees and 2,000 more coming every day, Jordan’s envoy said it’s imperative that a transition get underway to a political resolution that preserves Syria’s multi-ethnic society and borders.

“We are extremely encouraged by the results of the Secretary’s meetings in Moscow with the President and with the Foreign Minister and salute your achievements in that regard by identifying a path forward,” Judeh said at a meeting with Kerry at the US ambassador’s residence in Rome Thursday.

Jordan’s position, Judeh said, is that there “has to be a transitional period that results in a political solution that includes all the segments of Syrian society, no exclusion whatsoever…preserves Syria’s territorial integrity and unity, and…guarantees… pluralism and opportunity for everybody.”

Judeh said he was heading to Moscow Thursday for further discussions.  On Tuesday, Judeh issued a joint call  with Iran’s visiting Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi for both sides in Syria’s civil war to enter talks on a transition government.

Kerry, on the final leg of a trip to Moscow and Rome, said Thursday that he had sent US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford on to Istanbul to meet with the Syrian opposition and begin work to persuade them to come to the peace conference. They have expressed misgivings because it would get underway before any agreement on the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, although US officials insist US policy hasn’t changed and that they do not see any possibility where Assad could remain the leader of Syria. Continue reading

Iran, Jordan call for Syria transition talks


Iran’s Foreign Minister, on a rare visit to Jordan Tuesday, called on the Syrian regime and opposition to enter talks on forming a transitional government.

“We have called for talks between the Syrian government and the peaceful opposition to form a transitional government,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said at a joint conference with his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh in Amman Tuesday, Agence-France Press reported.

“We have advised the Syrian government to sit with the opposition but not with Al-Nusra,” Salehi added, referring to the Syrian offshoot of Al Qaida in Iraq, that has been listed as a terrorist group by the United States but been among the more militarily effective anti-Assad militias on the ground in the conflict.

Salehi’s two day visit to Jordan, a close US ally, comes amid a flurry of intensified regional and international diplomacy on the Syria conflict, and as the United States and Europeans consider stepped up measures to aide the Syrian opposition on the ground while pushing the two sides into transition talks.

“We’re working intensively with a range of partners to strengthen the Syrian opposition and help shift the balance on the ground, which is essential to any chance of shifting Asad’s calculus,” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said in a speech at Princeton University Saturday.

Secretary of State John Kerry was in Russia Tuesday for meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to try to find “common ground” on Syria. Kerry is due to meet with Jordan’s Nasser Judeh in Rome on Wednesday.

Salehi, meantime, was scheduled to travel on to Damascus later Tuesday for a meeting with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, IRNA and AFP reported. Qatari Prime Minister Hamad al-Thani, a key backer of the Syrian opposition, is due to make a rare visit to Iran next week.

Iran’s stepped up diplomacy on Syria in the wake of Israeli strikes in Syria over the weekend is part of Tehran’s “hedging” strategy, to ensure “the Islamic Reublic retains influence in Damascus irrespective of he outcome of the civil war,” Iran analyst Suzanne Maloney wrote at the Brookings Institution website Tuesday.

“Iran hopes to preserve at least a vestige of its ally Bashar, but has also sought a seat at the table in shaping post-Asad Syria in any formal regional dialogue,” Maloney wrote. Tehran also has “a genuine national interest in precluding the expansion of Sunni extremism.”

Iran has continued to be involved in a regional dialogue on how to resolve the Syria crisis with Egypt and Turkey, a member state diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told al-Monitor Monday. (Saudi Arabia has refused to attend the meetings of the regional ‘quartet’ because of Iran’s presence, the diplomat said.)

A high level US Defense Department delegation is also currently in Jordan for meetings of the US-Jordan Joint Military Commission, that got underway Monday. Continue reading

EU: Iran talks officially set

Iran will resume nuclear talks with six world powers on Feb. 26 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, European Union diplomats said Tuesday.

“Helga Schmid, Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service, agreed today with Dr Ali Bagheri, Deputy Secretary of the supreme national security council of Iran, that the next round of talks between the E3+3 and Iran on Iran's nuclear programme will take place in Almaty, Kazakhstan on 26th February,” a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement Tuesday.

Ashton thanked Kazakhstan for agreeing to host the meeting. (A US official noted that “Kazakhstan is a country that had a nuclear weapons program and voluntarily gave it up in the ‘90s,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists Monday.  “So it sets a powerful example.”)

Talks have been on hiatus since last summer, after three rounds of talks failed to narrow agreement on a deal under which Iran would stop its 20% enrichment activities.

Iran notified the IAEA last week that it intends to install as many as 3,000 more advanced IR-2M centrifuges at its enrichment plant at Natanz.

Iran has been giving mixed signals about returning to the negotiating table, as well as whether it would take up an offer for direct talks with the United States.

Iran Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, for his part, expressed optimism on Monday. Continue reading

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(Photo: the Information Center of Kurdistan in Paris, where three Kurdish women were found shot dead, Jan. 11, 2013. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann.)

 

Buzz grows around veteran Iran insider, amid rumors of US back channels

A veteran advisor to Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is playing an increasingly public role in Iranian foreign policy and politics, after years of operating more behind the scenes in the opaque world of the leader’s inner circle, some Iran watchers say.

Ali Akbar Velayati, who served as Iran’s foreign minister from 1981-1997 and studied pediatric medicine at Johns Hopkins University in the 1970s, has long served in the shadows as a foreign policy advisor to Khamenei and regime mandarin. But in recent months, Iran analysts note, Velayati has decidedly raised his public profile, headlining an Islamic awakening conference in Tehran in July, giving media interviews, offering conciliatory messages about Iran’s interest in pursuing negotiations with world powers towards a diplomatic resolution of the Iran nuclear dispute, while asserting a hawkish stance warning against Western military intervention in Syria.

This month, Iran announced it has opened negotiations with Argentina over the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish community center, in which several senior Iranian officials, including Velayati, were implicated.

Most recently, Velayati, 68, has become the subject of persistent rumors of US-Iran back channels, which have been denied by both capitals–and by Velayati himself.

“As far as I know, Velayati is already and quietly involved on some foreign policy issues,” former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian told Al-Monitor by email Saturday. “They all would be very careful and cautious to do things with little risk before [Iran presidential] June elections.”

Velayati’s higher profile on the public scene comes amid signs that Iran’s leadership may be seeking ways to ease Iran’s confrontation with the West over its nuclear program that has led to draconian sanctions straining Iran’s economy. Khamenei has also recently sought to quiet brazen infighting among domestic political factions that has intensified in the tumultuous last years of the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Amid Ahmadinejad’s sometimes erratic foreign policy pronouncements, Supreme Leader Khamenei has for years employed Velayati and fellow former foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi to chair foreign policy advisory committees and send back channel messages to foreign leaders and policy experts. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has also been quite active in conducting both official and Track II meetings with current and former foreign officials.

“If you asked me a few months ago, whether Velayati would be a viable Iranian presidential candidate next year, I would have thought it not very likely,” Yasmin Alem, an independent Iran analyst who studies Iranian domestic politics, told Al-Monitor in an interview Friday. “His name has been out there since the 1980s. He is not charismatic, and it would seem difficult to get people to vote for him.”

But developments in recent months have caused her to reconsider. The timing of Iran opening negotiations with Argentina “is suspicious,” Alem said. “Either they want to push him to be a candidate, or it might have something to do with nuclear negotiations, if the Supreme Leader has decided to make him an envoy directly communicating with the Americans.”

For all the denials, there’s a persistence to the Iran media speculation about a rumored Velayati role in a US back channel that has added an unlikely mystique to the image of the rather uncharismatic regime insider, analysts said. The buzz around Velayati is also tied to speculation that Tehran may need an envoy with better negotiating skills, experience with the West, and diplomatic mien to be able to get Iran out of its current predicament.

Velayati is knowledgeable about “Iran’s nuclear program over the years, … and he is still the person who is commenting on US-Iran relations with much more authority than anyone else,” Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday (November 1).

When Ahmadinejad, on a visit to New York in September, stirred media headlines suggesting possible openness to US-Iran talks, it was Velayati “who refuted that back home, saying there’s been no change in Iran policy to the US,” Vaez noted.

Al-Monitor reported in August that Velayati may be a presidential candidate next year, and that his prospective candidacy was tied in part to the Iranian leadership’s desire to reduce soaring tensions with the West and Iran’s deepening international diplomatic and economic isolation. Iran’s leadership “are rational, and calculate how to deal with the US,” a former senior Iranian diplomat supportive of Velayati’s candidacy told Al-Monitor in August. Key factions of Iran’s elite are looking for more effective stewardship of Iran’s international relations and stable management of domestic affairs, the former diplomat said.

“The Iranians have now realized that in the ‘P5+1′”–the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program—“the ‘Plus 1’ stands for the United States–not Germany,” Vaez said. “They realize that without talking directly to the United States, they can’t resolve this.”

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White House denies report that US and Iran agreed to direct talks

The White House on Saturday denied a report in the New York Times that the United States and Iran had agreed to hold one–on-one talks on Iran’s nuclear program after the US presidential elections next month. But the White House reiterated that the Obama administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

And a Washington Iran analyst told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding that a senior US arms control official has held authorized talks with an Iranian official posted to Turkey.

“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement Saturday. “We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister also issued a statement Sunday denying direct talks with the United States. “Talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations,” Ali Akbar Salehi said at a press conference Sunday. “Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States.”

The Iran analyst, who asked not to be named, told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore has had talks with an Iranian official posted as a diplomat to Turkey. The Iranian official was not identified.

US officials did not respond to requests for guidance from Al-Monitor late Saturday on the allegation a US official has had talks with an Iranian official or in what capacity.

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Iran FM Salehi: Iran nuclear bomb would decrease Iran’s security

New York_ Iran’s foreign minister said Monday that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would threaten Iran’s security and be destabilizing for the region.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the MIT-educated PhD engineer who previously served as Iran’s longtime envoy to the UN atomic watchdog agency, said that Iran acquiring one or two nuclear bombs would dramatically increase the threats Iran faces, and not be a deterrent to nuclear powers with far larger nuclear stockpiles.

“Had Iran chosen to [go] nuclear in the sense of weaponization, it would not be a deterrent for Iran,” Salehi, speaking in English, told foreign policy experts at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York Monday. “It would attract more threats from the other side.”

“Because suppose we wanted to go nuclear and manufacture one or two bombs,” Salehi continued. “Who on the other side of Iran …can we ever be in equal footing with in this regard? Any country that challenges us with nuclear weapons …who would we use against?”

(In an interview with Al-Monitor in August, Salehi said he envisioned a ‘win-win’ way out of the international dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.)

Salehi, with his many years in the United States and Vienna, cut a stylistically more erudite, polished figure than Iran’s outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who returned home to criticism over the dramatic plunge in the value of the Iranian currency the rial by almost 40% this week. But on core positions his message was not fundamentally different from that offered by the controversy-courting Ahmadinejad, who has spoken for the past few years about Iran’s willingness to strike a reasonable compromise on its nuclear program, but alienated many in the West by his questioning of the Holocaust and antagonistic comments about Israel, which Ahmadinejad refers to as “the Zionist” entity.

By contrast, Salehi referred to “Israel” by name in his remarks. But he referred to it to criticize Israel for its recent threats of military action against Iran’s nuclear program, and the double standards by which he says it does so while possessing some 200 nuclear weapons and not being a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a signatory.

On Syria, Salehi said that Iran has been meeting with the Syrian opposition for over a year, and supports UN and regional initiatives to try to broker mediation talks between the Syrian government and the opposition.

“We have been in contact with the Syrian opposition for over a year,” Salehi said. “We have declared and announced that we are ready to host the opposition and government in Iran, to sit down with each other and find a solution.”

(Salehi did not specify which Syrian opposition groups Iran has met with. But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, in an interview with Al-Monitor Saturday, said that Iran had been holding talks with members of the Syrian National Council and the Muslim Brotherhood.)

Salehi said that he has held meetings in New York in recent days with new United Nations/Arab League Syria envoy Lahhdar Brahimi and the Arab League chief, as well as with the UN’s longtime Lebanon envoy Terje Rød-Larsen.

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Q/A with David Albright: Iran should come clean about past research

Two telexes–part of a trove of 1,600 obtained by American nuclear expert David Albright– would seem to suggest that Iran’s current foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi was aware of Iran’s efforts to acquire whole body counters to detect nuclear radiation back in the early 1990s. That is among the findings published in a new series of reports by Albright and his colleague Paul Brannan, of the Institute for Science and International Studies (ISIS).

Albright, in an interview Wednesday, told me that he and Salehi actually have met each other and indeed argued at some “track 2″ events among nuclear experts held in New York in the 1990s.

Salehi insisted Iran “had no secret centrifuge programs,” Albright told me. “I responded that ‘based on procurements, you do.’”

“I always found Salehi pretty duplicitous,” he added. “But what surprised me in the current work we did, is he was apparently more involved than I realized.”

Salehi, a fluent English speaker who earned a PhD from MIT in 1977, served for eight years in Vienna as Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), from 1997-2005. (Born in Karbala, Iraq, Salehi is also a fluent Arabic speaker–one of the reasons he was tapped in 2010 to become Iran’s foreign minister, at a time when Arab leaders’ hostility to Iran was unusually publicly exposed, including in classified U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks.). Some Iran experts believe Salehi may be well positioned to run for Iran’s presidency when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term expires in 2013.

Back in 1991–the year of the two Salehi-linked telexes Albright uncovered–Salehi was chancellor at Iran’s Sharif University. Albright’s report suggests that the university was, in the late 1980s/early 1990s, part of a network of academic facilities linked to Iran’s Physics Research Center (PHRC), that were used as cover to acquire dual-use materiel for secret parts of Iran’s nuclear program. American intelligence and ISIS believe that Iran halted its secret military research program in 2003.

But Albright believes it’s essential that Iran own up to past alleged weaponization research in order to come in from the cold.

“If Iran comes clean on weaponization, other things can be solved much more easily,” he told me. Continue reading