U.S. cautions Iran deal not imminent or certain

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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.)

Negotiators at halfway point, move to drafting phase of Iran deal talks


Iran and six world powers have advanced through the first phase of comprehensive nuclear talks and are preparing to shift into the next phase of drafting a final deal accord starting at the next meeting in May, negotiators said in Vienna Wednesday.

“We have now held substantive and detailed discussions covering all the issues which will need to be part of a Comprehensive Agreement,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a joint statement with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the conclusion of the third round of talks in Vienna Wednesday.

“A lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences which naturally still exist at this stage in the process,” Ashton said, in a statement subsequently delivered by Zarif in Persian.

“We will now move to the next phase in the negotiations in which we will aim to bridge the gaps in all the key areas.”

“I can say we agree on 50 to 60 percent of issues, but the remainders are important ones and diverse,” Iran’s Zarif said in a subsequent briefing to Iranian journalists Wednesday.

The next meeting, to be held in Vienna starting May 13th, will be open-ended, diplomats said. The U.S. delegation plans to be there at least a week, a senior U.S. official said, and Zarif suggested it could last up to ten days.

“For all of us involved in this between now and July 20th, we understand that there is no higher priority,” the senior U.S. official said. “Everyone in the room has explicitly said they are ready to do whatever they need to do and change their schedules and their life to do what is necessary.”

“I think…both Zarif and Ashton are trying to manage expectations, because in the past few days, there have been rumors about the parties starting the drafting of the final agreement as of May, and this created the illusion of agreement,’ Ali Vaez, senior Iran researcher at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor from Vienna Wednesday.

The parties “wanted to make sure [to explain that there remain] central differences,” Vaez said. “Although progress has been made on some issues, there are still some sticky points.”

Until this round, the parties “have not got into the bargaining stage that much,” Vaez said. “Mostly they have been focused on providing justifications for each side’s positions and learning more about why each side takes their particular position.”

“From this point on, [they] get into the real bargaining part of this process,” Vaez said.

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to the Senate foreign relations panel Tuesday, described the final deal negotiations as at the “halfway” point, and said he remained “agnostic” about whether they would result in an agreement.

“I’m not expressing optimism, one side or the other,” Kerry said in response to a question from Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). “I remain agnostic and questioning, even as we are just about halfway through.”

“I talked with our team on the ground in Vienna yesterday,” Kerry said. “They are having serious, expert, in-depth, detailed conversations about what it takes to achieve our goal. I mean, of proving that this is a peaceful program.”

The recent rounds of negotiations “were substantive and useful,” a western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said Wednesday. “But needless to say, there is still a long way to go. We are working hard.”

(Photo: Final round of Iran comprehensive deal talks in Vienna Wednesday April 9, posted by State Department spokesperson Marie Harf to Twitter.)

Former Obama officials propose talking with Iran on Syria aid

Amid deepening US-Russia strains over Ukraine, two former Obama administration officials say it may be time for the US to explore trying to develop a channel with Iran to discuss Syria, beginning with humanitarian relief.

While Iran, like Russia, doesn’t want to see Bashar al-Assad forced out, “its broader attitude toward the United States is cautiously warming,” and its leverage on Assad is far greater than Russia’s, Jonathan Stevenson, a former Obama National Security Council official, wrote in the New York Times this week (March 12, 2014). “This puts America and Iran somewhat closer on Syria than they may appear.”

“My bottom line sense with the Iranians is there’s hope for a US-Iran conversation [on Syria humanitarian aid] that is a serious and potentially productive one,” Frederic Hof, a former senior US diplomat advising the Obama administration on Syria and the Levant, told Al-Monitor.in an interview last week.

In track 2 conversations with Iranians that Hof has been involved in, “the people I talk to are blunt:  they are not interested in talking about a [Syria] political transition,” Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said. “They need Assad and regime support to Hezbollah in Lebanon as Iran’s first line of defense against Israel and the possibility of an Israeli air assault on their nuclear facilities.”

“Humanitarian aid is where to start—establishing localized ceasefires, facilitating aid access,” Stevenson, a former director for political-military affairs for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama administration, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Friday. Focusing on humanitarian issues initially makes sense, he said, especially given reluctance by both sides to hold “major political discussions,” and with both the US and Iran focused in the near term on the imperative of trying to reach a nuclear deal.

When Secretary of State John Kerry raised Syria at a meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last month, Zarif told Kerry that he was not authorized to discuss Syria, the State Department said. That may not be a feint, some Iran analysts suggest.  While Iran’s Supreme Leader has authorized Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif to try to negotiate a nuclear deal, “I think it’s been clear from day one that Khamenei does not want to put all his cards on the table,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran research at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor in an interview last month. “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.”

That may be the case, Stevenson acknowledged. “The point, though, is to tease out just how resistant they are to putting Syria on the table,” said Stevenson, who left the NSC last May and is now a professor of strategy studies at the Naval War College. “That is why it doesn’t make sense to try to do this through Geneva.”

Stevenson recommended that the US and Iran “keep strictly separate tracks”  between the nuclear talks and any prospective Syria discussions. “It should be made clear by our side, and reciprocated, that there can’t be any linkage,” he said. “For optics, you would want to keep the nuclear track the top priority, and to designate for the Syria conversation a senior State Department official not involved in the nuclear talks.”

“On Syria, the challenge on our side is always bureaucratic stove-piping,” Hof agreed. Those “in charge of the US role in the P5+1 will absolutely oppose any kind of cross -pollination or discussion about Syria. So it takes a decision almost at the highest level,” at the Kerry-Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns level, to try to pursue a Syria channel with Iran.

One official who might make sense to tap for such exploratory US Iran talks on Syria, a former official suggested, would be Puneet Talwar, who until recently served as the Obama NSC Senior Director for Gulf affairs, and who has been involved in US-Iran back channel talks to establish a bilateral diplomatic channel to advance a nuclear deal. Talwar was confirmed on Thursday as Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, and is no longer expected to be part of the US team involved in the P5+1 Iran nuclear negotiations.

Other possible officials to consider include Salman Ahmed, a counselor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice involved in the recent Syria talks in Geneva, who previously advised Rice at the UN, and before that served as a senior official in the UN Department of Political Affairs; or Rob Malley, Talwar’s successor as the NSC Senior Director for Gulf Affairs, who previously served in the Clinton White House and as Middle East director for the International Crisis Group; or Daniel Rubenstein, the former US Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan who will be tapped to succeed Robert Ford as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor reported..

Hof said he raised with Iranian interlocutors in track 2 talks the prospect of a scenario in which a “Srebrenica-style moment” occurred in Syria, as the Iran and the P5+1 were advancing a nuclear deal. A scenario in which “your client does something so outrageous, that it inspires POTUS to do what he declined to do in August or September,” Hof said. “To the extent you guys are serious on the nuclear front, what does that do to that progress?” Hof asked his Iranian interlocutors. “And they looked at one another and shrugged, because their attitude is, Assad is not the most reliable guy in the world.”

Iranians in the track 2 discussions have also expressed some problems with the UN role in Syria, Hof said, suggesting that any US-Iran channel on Syria not be through UN auspices.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, writing at Al-Monitor March 5, 2014, proposed a four-part plan for resolving the Syria crisis. In it, Amir-Abdollahian wrote that the “the provision of immediate humanitarian aid is a religious and humanitarian duty,” and that the “UN’s neutral role is significant,” perhaps hinting that Iran found the UN’s role on Syria to be less than neutral.

Amir-Abdollahian, a former Iranian ambassador to Bahrain, was among the Iranian officials who in 2007 met with US diplomats in Iraq. The trilateral US-Iran-Iraq talks on Iraq were led on the US side by then US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who found them unproductive. Was Amir-Abdollahian’s piece this month a signal of Iran interest in discussing Syria?

“Reinforcing the political track and facilitating comprehensive talks is the most appropriate method to achieve a political solution,” Amir-Abdollahian wrote. “Alongside national talks inside Syria, boosting genuine talks at both the regional and the international level is very important.”

(Photo of then US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker meeting with Iranian and Iraqi officials in Iraq in 2007 posted by the Iranian Supreme Leader’s official website March 14, 2013.)

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.”

US and Iran Speak ‘Same Language’ in Nuclear Talks

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Geneva__ Western and Iranian diplomats hailed a new pace, candor and mutual will to try to forge a process to resolve international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, but acknowledged they were at the beginning of a still complex and difficult negotiation whose success is not guaranteed.

“The good news, we are getting to a place where one can imagine we could possibly have a process that could lead to an agreement,” a senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists Wednesday at the end of two days of nuclear negotiations here, the first since the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

“I have never had such intense, detailed, straight-forward, candid conversations with the Iran delegation before,” the American official said. “The discussions took place in English…the pace of discussions was much better. It creates the ability to have a back and forth.”

“There are [still] serious differences.” the U.S. official said. We “got more today than we have ever gotten before, but there’s still a whole lot more we have to get.”

“Both sides are serious, both sides want to find common ground,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking in English, told journalists at a press conference at the conclusion of talks here. “Iran is interested in resolving this issue.”

Zarif, at the Geneva talks, “presented an outline of a plan as a proposed basis for negotiations, which is being carefully considered” by the six world powers, Catherine Ashton, European Union foreign policy chief, told a press conference here Wednesday, part of a rare joint statement by Iran and the so-called P5+1.

The two sides agreed to meet again in Geneva Nov. 7-8, and said that technical experts on both the nuclear and sanctions issues would be meeting before that.

The US official suggested that it would probably be premature for P5+1 foreign ministers and US Secretary of State John Kerry to lead delegations to the next Geneva meeting in just three weeks time, given that there are still so many complex technical, and more fundamental, issues to resolve. The new Iranian leadership had previously expressed the conviction that progress could be made more quickly at the ministerial level. But Zarif on Wednesday struck a diplomatic tone, expressing satisfaction with how the negotiations had been conducted here, often by deputies, and said foreign ministers could be summoned when needed.

“We are prepared to meet at the ministerial level whenever necesaary,” Zarif said. “I am content with the last few days, how colleagues were able to conduct the negotiations…it was a serious and substantive negotiation. …But I think at a certain stage, [the negotiations] will need more political direction.”

The two sides also agreed not to publicly disclose the details of the Iranian proposal, given the sensitivity of the issues involved, both in Iran and foreign capitals.

“The details require serious and in depth negotiations,” Zarif said. “We will be doing the negotiations in the negotiating room, not [in public, and] through the press. The seriousness and importance of the details requires us to be very vigilant.”

One party not at the talks that is unlikely to patiently await the details to be worked out before moving forward with new sanctions is Congress. The senior US official said she would be probably be briefing members behind closed doors in classified session upon her return.

“If we have what I call the high class problem of a verifiable and sound agreement that addresses all of the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and assures the world [Iran won't get a nuclear weapon], I feel confident that everyone engaged in this process will support that outcome, including the U.S. Congress,” the American official said. “None of us want to undo the [sanctions architecture] in place before we have results.”

“Overall, there was modest progress,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran researcher at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “The very fact that the two sides are speaking the same language after all these years…..is the most we could expect from these two days of talks.”

Zarif conducted his press conference Wednesdsy, speaking in both fluent English and Persian, from a wheel chair, having traveled to Geneva with severe back pain, accompanied by a doctor. The American official said many of the diplomats here, fellow veterans of constant air travel and chronic back pain, had expressed their empathy to Zarif and recommended to him various remedies.

“Not one of us doesn’t have a back problem,” the US official said, saying Zarif had told them he had undergone an acupuncture treatment today. Diplomatic colleagues here offered him “books they thought he should read, things he might try. …We all have suffered.”

(Photo of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaking in Geneva October 16, 2013. By Reuters.)

West praises ‘useful, detailed’ Iran nuclear proposal

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Geneva_ Iran presented a nuclear proposal to six world powers here today, which western diplomats unusually praised as “very useful” and detailed.

“For the first time, we had very detailed technical discussions, which carried on this afternoon,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said Tuesday. “We will continue these discussions tomorrow.”

“We heard a presentation this morning from Foreign Minister Zarif. It was very useful,” Mann said earlier Tuesday.

The Iranian proposal, in the form of a PowerPoint, is entitled “An end to a unnecessary crisis, a beginning to a new horizons.”

For the first time, the meeting between the P5+1 and Iran was being conducted in English.

“We presented the general contours of our proposal and will present the details in the afternoon session,” Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and deputy negotiator, told journalists in Persian here after the morning session ended.

“The meeting was very positive,” Araghchi, responding to a question in English, characterized the morning meeting. He also told Iranian media that Iran’s proposal will remain confidential until an agreement is reached.

The talks got started at the city’s Palais des Nations at 10AM local time, with the morning session ending just before noon. The full group went back into talks around 2:45PM, with the Iranian team led by Araghchi, and wrapped up around 5PM. Zarif and Ashton were to meet Tuesday evening, and other bilateral meetings were also thought to be occurring.

“This meeting is not about the details, it is about discussing the broad contours of an endgame and the roadmap for getting there,” said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for the Intermational Crisis Group, who is attending the talks here in Geneva.

“The Iranians want to move really quickly,” Vaez said. “The idea is, they want to get to an end game in one year.” Their idea, he said, is to “define the broad contorus of an endgame, then next interim, confidence building measures, and a final stage agreement on arriving at an end state.”

An Iranian official told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he doesn’t know yet if the Iranian team will hold direct talks with the Americans here in Geneva, but did not rule it out. “It’s possible,” he said.

Araghchi met with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov Tuesday morning, Iranian journalist Mojtaba Mousavi reported.

Two U.S. government sanctions experts were expected to attend the afternoon session, Araghchi also said.

Iran’s lead negotiator, Foreign Minister Zarif, presented at the talks this morning, after having dinner with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton last night. Zarif was also scheduled to have dinner Tuesday night with the Swiss Foreign Minister.

Zarif came to Geneva with continued severe back pain. He was photographed on his plane from Tehran laying horizontally to deal with back pain, and is reportedly accompanied by a doctor on the trip here.

Both the Iranian and American delegatiions are staying at the same Geneva Hotel, as well as several European delegations.

This post has been updated throughout the day with additional reporting.

(Photo of UnderSecretary of State Wendy Sherman, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, courtesy of U.S. Mission to Geneva.)

Top Iran, EU diplomats agree to meet to plan new nuclear talks

Top European diplomat Catherine Ashton has agreed to meet soon with Iran’s new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, to advance preparations for resumed nuclear negotiations. The meeting plans come amid unconfirmed Iranian media speculation about Zarif possibly playing a key role in the negotiations–speculation that may be linked to new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's expressed interest in having the nuclear negotiations conducted at higher level representation, Iran analysts suggested.

Ashton, in a congratulatory phone call to Zarif on Saturday August 17th, said six world powers “were ready to work with the new Iranian negotiating team as soon as they were appointed,” a press statement (.pdf) from the office of the European Union foreign policy chief said. Ashton and Zarif also agreed “to meet soon.”

Western officials said Sunday that Ashton's proposed meeting with Zarif did not indicate in any way whether Zarif was expected to be Iran’s chief interlocutor in the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, succeeding Saeed Jalili, Iran’s former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.

A spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry said Sunday that no such decision has yet been made, Iranian media reports said.

American officials, speaking not for attribution Sunday, said they were awaiting the appointment of Iran's new nuclear team, and indicated they were aware of unconfirmed Iranian rumors and media reports that Rouhani was studying transferring Iran’s nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Zarif, a former Iranian envoy to the United Nations who earned his PhD at the University of Denver, forged ties with many US national security experts when he served in New York, and his appointment as foreign minister has been seen in the West as an encouraging sign. So too has that of outgoing foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi to become Iran's next chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI).

Zarif, for his part, demurred in an interview Saturday on whether the nuclear dossier was being moved to his purview, while noting that Iranian President Rouhani had the authority to make such a decision.

“I have not heard anything about this issue,” Zarif told Iran's IRDiplomacy August 17th. “This is a decision that is within the domain of the President’s authority. Nevertheless, considering my experiences in this case, I will make efforts to help in the advancement of this issue no matter what responsibility I might have. But decisions with regard to how we should pursue the nuclear dossier and the form and framework of negotiations are made at the higher levels of our political system.”

Zarif “is a smooth operator, a very clever and successful diplomat,” Gary Samore, former Obama White House WMD czar, told Al-Monitor in an interview earlier this month. “When I knew him, [after Iran indicated it was going to resume enriching uranium after a suspension in] 2005, I engaged in a number of discussions about the nuclear program; he was a very forceful advocate… but that’s fine. He’s more pleasant to deal with.”

“I have seen no indication of a change of substance” in Iran’s nuclear negotiating stance as yet, Samore, now with Harvard's Belfer Center, continued. “The next couple of months are all about process. Will there be some kind of bilateral [US-Iran] channel established, which I think everybody agrees is a necessary condition for achieving an agreement.” Continue reading

Setback at Iran nuclear talks

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Almaty, Kazakhstan__Western diplomats on Friday expressed initial dismay after listening to Iranian negotiators present their response to a revised international nuclear proposal. But after further meetings Friday, western negotiators said the talks had become more substantive, though the sides remained some ways apart.

“We are somewhat puzzled by the Iranians’ characterisation of what they presented,” a western official told journalists after a three hour meeting here between diplomats from Iran and six world powers.

Rather than the “clear and concrete” response the six powers had been seeking, the Iranian nuclear negotiating team offered “some interesting, but not fully explained, general comments on our ideas,” the western official continued.

“It was mainly a reworking of what they said in Moscow,” the official said, referring to a powerpoint on Iran’s proposed framework for negotiations that Tehran envoys presented in Moscow last June.

Earlier Friday, Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri, in a mid-day press conference, said Iran had presented a “comprehensive proposal” to international negotiators that stressed the process and endgame, beyond short-term confidence-building steps.

The Islamic Republic of Iran “proposed a practical method to implement a Moscow plan in a smaller scale, and stressed that actions and so-called confidence building measures must be considered as part of a larger, more comprehensive plan,” Bagheri, speaking through a translator, said at a second press conference Friday evening.

But western diplomats expressed initial puzzlement at what they perceived as Iran’s apparant return to debating modalities for negotiations, rather than haggling over specific steps discussed at two recent rounds of talks this year.

“We had a long and substantial discussion on the issues, but we remain a long way apart on the substance,” a western official said at the conclusion of the first day of talks Friday. “We are now evaluating the situation and will meet again tomorrow.”

Diplomats from Iran, the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the EU are expected to meet again here on Saturday. Iran also held a series of bilateral meetings Friday evening, including with the Russians, Germany, and UK. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is expected to meet with Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili Saturday morning before plenary talks get underway.

Another meeting ‘to narrow gaps’ will possibly be agreed before delegations depart, one official suggested, although it was not yet clear at what level it would be held.

Western diplomats notably sent out the SOS about how things were going downhill early in the first day of the expected two-day talks in an apparent bid to try to salvage seeming progress made in two recent rounds of talks. Iran seeks, before it would agree to suspend its 20% enrichment, to get assurances on a path that will result in recognition of its right to enrich and broader sanctions relief. Western diplomats say Iran should take the first step in a confidence building measure.

Continue reading

Roundup: Brennan confirmed, Obama: Iran needs way to climb down

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama salutes as he steps off Marine One at the White House in Washington after visiting wounded military personnel at the Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Maryland, March 5, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing.)

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Iran nuclear advisor: Almaty 'decisive turning point'

An advisor to Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator has called the nuclear negotiations held in Almaty, Kazakhstan last week a “decisive turning point,” in three years of strategic calculations between the United States and Iran.

Mahdi Mohammadi, the former political editor of Kayhan who attended the Almaty negotiations as a media advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, wrote an analysis of the talks for the Iranian media that was published in English by Iran Review on March 7:

They expected Iran to change, but in practice, it was the United States which changed. I believe that an important mental shift has occurred in the minds of the US statesmen about the definition of a nuclear Iran. As a result of that change, the definition of the red line which should not be crossed by Iran, and the definition of “Iran's nuclear energy program” in a way that the United States would be able to accept it in a face-saving manner, have also changed. The only reason which caused the Baghdad proposal to change in Almaty was a change in the strategic calculations of the United States during the past year.

The updated international proposal presented to Iran in the Almaty talks on February 26-27 requests that Iran suspend operations at Fordo, rather than shutter the facility. It also would allow Iran to produce and keep enough 20% to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor which produces nuclear isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients. In exchange, it offered Iran relief from sanctions on the gold trade, and petrochemical sales, diplomatic sources told Al Monitor.

The revised proposal “calls for a suspension of the production of near 20 percent enriched uranium – an element common to the Iranian and P-5+1 positions,” a senior US official told journalists in Almaty February 27:

It would significantly restrict the accumulation of near 20 percent enriched uranium in Iran while enabling the Iranians to produce sufficient fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.  It would suspend enrichment at Fordo and constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there.  It would call for enhanced IAEA monitoring measures to promote greater transparency in Iran’s nuclear program and provide early warning of any attempt to rapidly or secretly abandon agreed limits and produce weapons-grade uranium.

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In exchange for these constraints, the Almaty proposal would build on the Baghdad proposal by offering some steps to ease sanctions on Iran.  [...] In keeping with that principle that sanctions easing should be proportionate to the measures accepted by Iran, the sanctions easing offered at this initial stage do not deal with the sanctions currently having the greatest impact, mainly oil and financial sanctions.  [...]

Nonetheless, the sanctions easing steps contained in the Almaty proposal are meaningful and would be of substantial benefit to Iran.  They do include pledges to refrain from additional UN Security Council and European Union sanctions imposed as a result of the nuclear issue.  They also include a suspension of a number of significant U.S. and EU sanctions.

Iranian reaction to the Almaty talks has been notably positive, while western reaction has been more muted.

“They”–the Iranians–“are really upbeat about these negotiations,” an Iran analyst told the Back Channel Wednesday following a meeting with Iran’s envoy to the United Nations. However, some members of the P5+1 “don’t like the positive spin. They think the Iranians want to portray ‘we won.’”

The sanctions relief presented in the updated package is the most generous the six world powers could offer at this time given the level of mistrust and legislative constraints associated with most sanctions imposed, said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group which last week published a detailed analysis of the sanctions imposed on Iran and the complexity of unwinding them.

“After six months looking at the sanctions regime, the offer could not be more generous,” Vaez told the Back Channel. Continue reading