P5+1 hopes new Iran nuclear team responds to Almaty offer

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Diplomats from six world powers will meet in Brussels next week in anticipation of resuming nuclear talks with Iran in September, following the inauguration next month of Iran President-elect Hassan Rouhani.

Political directors from the P5+1 will meet in Brussels July 16th, a western official said Wednesday.

The meeting comes as western capitals signaled they hope the new Iran nuclear team selected under Rouhani responds substantively to a confidence-building proposal they presented to Iran at talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February.

“We look to a new Government in Iran to give a comprehensive response to the E3+3’s proposal for a confidence building measure, and to co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told British parliament Wednesday (July 10).

“We will respond in good faith to positive action by Iran,“ Hague said. “We are ready to improve our relations on a step by step basis, but no one should doubt our resolve to prevent nuclear proliferation.”

Hague's comments suggest western capitals have decided for now against pivoting to a “go big” offer when they resume talks with Iran, possibly in early September.

“The P5+1 is asking for a serious response to their serious proposal, which they did not receive [from Iran in the spring] because the Iranians were not in the mood to bargain just weeks before their elections,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“What everyone needs to recognize is that the proposal put forward in Kazakhstan in the spring is the opening position, it is not a take it or leave it proposition,” Kimball said. “It’s in Iran’s interest to offer a counter-proposal in September, or whenever the talks might occur.”

Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, who hosted the last two rounds of Iran nuclear talks, said that Rouhani’s election has made western officials somewhat hopeful about the prospects for progress.

“We hear different commentaries on this election, but the prevailing one is of hope,” Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov told Al-Monitor in an interview in Washington Wednesday. “Internally, [the Iranian people] voted for changes, for development.”

“Mr. Rounani in his own remarks has made very clear he wants greater engagement with the rest of the world,” Idrissov said. “And to create a more conducive environment for growth and development in Iran. There is potential for nuclear talks. It’s a hopeful situation.”

In his meetings this week, including with lead US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman, American officials have “shared sentiments of hope,” Idrissov said. “Now it’s important, that this period of hope translates into practical things. Kazakhstan is a well-wisher. It would be wise by all parties to seize the moment.”

(Photo: Iran President Elect Hassan Rouhani speaking at a press conference in Iran June 17, 2013. Ebrahim Noroozi / AP.)

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The P5+1 nuclear proposal to Iran in Almaty: Document

Six world powers presented an updated nuclear proposal to Iran at a meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February.

Here follows the P5+1’s Almaty confidence building proposal that was further discussed with Iran nuclear experts at technical talks in Istanbul on March 18th, and which remains on the table today.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson first reported on the details of the proposal, which he obtained from one of the negotiating parties, in April.

A western official, speaking not for attribution Sunday, confirmed to Al-Monitor the proposal is authentic.

The P5+1 confidence building proposal calls on Iran to suspend 20% enrichment; ship out the 20% stockpile it doesn’t require for medical use; agree to enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring; and suspend operations at, but not dismantle the cascades, at the fortified Fordow enrichment facility; for a period of six months. In return, it offers relief from United States and European Union sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals and petrochemical sales; the licensing of US repairs to Iran civilian aircraft; as well as to impose no new United Nations or EU proliferation sanctions.

If Iran agreed to the CBM proposal, “during the six months, negotiations would proceed on further steps, including a comprehensive long-term agreement that would restore the international community’s confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful, respect’s Iran’s rights to peaceful nuclear energy, and terminate sanctions,” the proposal states. “In return for further significant action by Iran to address concerns about its nuclear program, the U.S. and the EU would be prepared to take comparable action, including proportionate relief of oil sanctions.”

Al-Monitor previously reported (March 26) that Iran expressed willingness at the Istanbul technical talks to suspend 20% enrichment and continue converting its 20% stockpile to oxide. But it raised objections to other requested measures, including suspending lower level enrichment at Fordow, shipping out its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, and increased IAEA monitoring.

Iran issued a counter-proposal at the second day of Almaty2 talks April 6th, in which it said it would agree to suspend 20% enrichment and continue converting its stockpile of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas to oxide, in exchange for recognition of its right to enrich and a lifting of some banking sanctions, nonproliferation expert sources told Al-Monitor last month. Western officials characterized the Iranian counter-offer as asking for a lot, and offering very little.

Iran’s presidential candidates sharply challenged Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili at a televised campaign debate last week on why there had been no progress in nuclear talks. Notably, Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei and former Iranian foreign minister, derided Jalili as ineffective and pedantic, saying negotiating involves more than lecturing the other side about one’s positions, but getting results.

“You want to take three steps and you expect the other side to take 100 steps, this means that you don’t want to make progress,” Velayati chided Jalili in the June 7 debate, the Christian Science Monitor reported. “This is not diplomacy…. We can’t expect everything and give nothing.”

“What people are seeing, Mr. Jalili, is that you have not gone forward even one step, and the pressure of sanctions still exists,” Velayati added.

Jalili, who has served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator since 2007, refuted the criticism, saying that the Supreme Leader, briefed on the Almaty discussions, had approved of his negotiating stance.

The Almaty Confidence Building Proposal below the jump:

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‘Robust’ Iran nuclear talks reveal gulf between sides

Almaty, Kazakhstan__ Iran and six world powers remained far apart at the conclusion of two days of talks here without agreeing to meet again, but American and European diplomats said the Iranians had engaged more deeply than ever before on the details of a potential nuclear compromise.

“Two days of talks just concluded that were indeed quite substantive,” a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists at the conclusion of talks Saturday. “Each session involved a robust discussion … [that was] more natural and free-flowing than past talks.”

“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” the US diplomat said. “There was intensive dialogue on key issues at the core of [the proposed confidence building measure.]. Both sides came away with better understanding of each others’ positions.”

Among the interchanges described, was a 30-45 minute back and forth between the lead US negotiator at the talks, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Iran’s lead negotiator Saeed Jalili, in which Sherman asked Jalili a series of specific questions and he responded.

In meetings Saturday, Iranian negotiators apparently said what Iran would require in exchange for suspending 20% enrichment was the lifting of all unilateral sanctions, an Iran analyst attending the talks said was his understanding, based on conversations on the side-lines of the talks with members of the Iranian team.

The Iranian position is so far apart from where the P5+1 proposal is, international negotiators seemed taken aback. The intensive discussions over the past two days revealed a “significant gulf” between the two sides, the US official said.

“Lost in translation,” the Iran analyst described Iran’s positioning to Al-Monitor, saying he fears it could appear not as hard bargaining, but an expectations gap that may be harder to close.

American and European diplomats said they are committed to the diplomatic process, but did not agree to the Iranian request to schedule new talks yet, in part to signal Iran that it had not come to Almaty with what they considered a sufficiently concrete response to their revised proposal. The updated international offer eased some previous demands that Iran totally shut the Fordo enrichment facility but asked it suspend operations there, and would allow Iran to keep enough 20% fuel for the country’s domestic medical needs. It also offered some modest sanctions relief on trade in gold and precious metals and petrochemical sales.

We “had long and intensive discussions on the issues,” during which “it became clear that the positions of the E3+3 and Iran remain far apart on the substance,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said at a press briefing at the conclusion of talks here Saturday.

“We have therefore agreed that all sides will go back to capitals to evaluate where we stand in the process,” Ashton continued, saying she will call her Iranian counterpart Jalili soon to “see how to go forward.”

Iranian negotiators arrived in Almaty this week taking a hard line, calling for an endgame road-map that would give it assurances of the recognition of the right to enrich and the lifting of sanctions before it would move on a short-term confidence building measure focused on curbing 20% enrichment. But western negotiators pushed back, saying they were puzzled and disappointed in the “minimal” Iranian presentation. Iran then pivoted over the next 36 hours to arguing for a better deal, sources said.

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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.

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P5+1 seeks ‘clear and concrete’ response from Iran in Almaty

20130404-101537.jpgAlmaty, Kazakhstan__ Western diplomats said Thursday they hope Iran comes here with a “clear and concrete” response to a revised international proposal aimed at curbing Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work.

“What would be most helpful is for Iran to give us concrete responses, what they think they’re willing to do on this proposal, what gives them concerns, …[to] get into a real and substantive negotiation,” a senior US administration official told journalists in a conference late Wednesday ahead of boarding a flight to Kazakhstan. “I’m hopeful that they will do that.”

“We would of course like them to come and say, ‘We accept the proposal. Now let’s work out the details,'” the American official continued. “But that’s not usually the way these things work. … That’s why you’re in a negotiation to begin with.”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton “calls upon Iran to give a clear and concrete answer to the E3/EU+3’s Almaty proposal,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for Ashton, said Thursday.

Diplomats from Iran and six world powers are gathering here ahead of the third set of nuclear talks in the past five weeks, which are due to get underway Friday. International negotiators presented a revised international proposal at high level talks held in Almaty in February, and then held technical talks in Istanbul last month.

The Iranian negotiating team is expected on Friday to present a response to the latest P5+1 proposal, that includes Iran’s suggested steps, an Iranian source suggested Thursday. Iran’s counter proposal will aim “to test” western intentions, he said.

“We think our talks tomorrow can go forward with one word,” Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said in a talk to Kazakh university students Wednesday. “That is the acceptance of the rights of Iran, particularly the right of enrichment.”

Striking a familiar theme, Jalili also criticized nuclear armed world powers that seek to limit other countries’ nuclear rights. “No country should have a nuclear weapon,” Jalili said.

Despite the tough tone, western diplomats said Iranian technical experts were particularly engaged and focused on substantive details at technical talks held in Istanbul March 18th that went on for twelve hours. The Iranian technical team was not authorized to negotiate, however, the American diplomat said, but rather to seek more information and clarification on the international proposal.

The Iranian team, in Istanbul, indicated Tehran was considering an international request to suspend 20% enrichment for six months, and to continue converting Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium to oxide for medical use, a diplomatic source told Al-Monitor last month. However, the Iranian team expressed objections to other elements in the international proposal, the diplomat said. Among them: suspending other operations at the Fordo facility except 20% enrichment, shipping out its 20% stockpile, and increased IAEA inspections.

Iranian diplomats have also said that while they consider the revised international proposal an improvement from one presented in Baghdad last year, they still find it “imbalanced” between its demands and the incentives it offers.

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Former Obama nuclear advisor Samore: Iran might take deal after June polls

Expectations are low for an Iran nuclear deal before Iranian presidential elections in June, former White House nuclear advisor Gary Samore told the Brookings Institution Monday. After that, it’s possible Iran might agree to a deal on curbing its 20% enrichment, or it will face increasing economic sanctions, Samore said.

“I think it’s possible Iran could decide after the presidential elections to accept the small deal on the table now,” Samore, who served as President Obama’s ‘WMD czar’ until January, told the panel on Iran negotiations Monday.

From Iran’s standpoint, “it’s a good deal,” Samore, now executive director of the Harvard Belfer Center, continued. “If it is looking at ways to create a respite” from economic sanctions, “what’s on offer might do that.”

The panel on negotiating with Iran comes as diplomats from Iran and six world powers return to Almaty, Kazakhstan later this week for the second round of nuclear talks in the past five weeks.

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US, Iran nuclear teams to Istanbul for technical talks

Nuclear experts from Iran and six world powers head to Istanbul next week to discuss a revised international proposal that Iranian officials welcomed as a “turning point” at a meeting in Kazakhstan last month.

The U.S. team to the Istanbul talks, to be held March 18, includes two veteran State Department arms control negotiators, Robert Einhorn and Jim Timbie, as well as Jofi Joseph, an Iran director in the White House WMD shop, US officials told the Back Channel Thursday. Einhorn and Timbie previously attended technical talks with Iran held in Istanbul last July, along with then White House WMD czar Gary Samore, who left the administration in January for Harvard.

Iran’s delegation to the technical talks in Istanbul next week is expected, as last July, to be led by Hamid-Reza Asgari, a longtime member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team, who multiple Iranian sources tell Al-Monitor is an Iranian intelligence officer who has been involved in Iran's international arms control discussions for over a decade. Iran's team to Istanbul last July also included Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

(A revealing detail on their dynamic comes from a late 2009 US cable, released by Wikileaks, and written by then US envoy to the IAEA Glyn Davies. It describes Soltanieh as having moved to shake US Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman's hand at a 2009 Vienna meeting, “necessitating Iranian Legal Advisor Asgari to pull him [Soltanieh] away from” the U.S. delegation, Davies wrote.)

American and Iranian officials had fairly extensive discussions at the last technical meeting in Istanbul last July, a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists at P5+1 talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan last month.

“There’s a little heightened hope that Iran will respond in a meaningful way when they meet,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department arms control official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told the Back Channel Thursday. “If Iran comes back engaging in the details…if they are talking the same language…it would be very much progress.”

President Obama, speaking on Wednesday ahead of his first presidential trip to Israel next week, said that the United States currently assesses it would be at least a year before Iran could manufacture a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and the United States and international partners had been intensifying efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution in that window because it would prove more durable.

“Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close,” Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
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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

Iran diplomat offers tentatively positive take on Almaty talks


Almaty, Kazakhstan__An Iranian diplomat, in an interview with Al-Monitor, offered a cautiously positive take on the nuclear talks that got underway in Kazakhstan Tuesday, though he said Iran still considers that a new international proposal asks more of Iran than it offers.

“We think in Almaty the whole frame is positive, because we are going to discuss the principles [and] specifics,” the Iranian official, who did not wish to be named, told Al-Monitor shortly after nuclear talks got underway here Tuesday. “We believe that until now, there has not really been a negotiation.”

“I can’t say what will be the outcome,” the official continued. “But we think the outcome should be some technical meetings.” That would seem to correspond with what Western diplomats said Monday, that they were hoping to have a follow up meeting, or a series of follow up meetings, with the Iranians at the technical experts level, ideally beginning before Iran’s Nowruz New Year’s holiday in March.

Both Iran and the P5+1 agree that a comprehensive deal “is not possible right now, so both sides are trying to solve one part of it,” the Iranian diplomat said. “Both sides agree on which part to solve right now,” as a first step, focused on Iran’s 20% enrichment activities, he said.

From Iran’s perspective, he continued, however, “the problem is, what the P5+1 wants to give us is not [balanced with] their requests.”

The updated P5+1 proposal formally presented to Iran Tuesday includes some sanctions relief on the gold trade, petrochemical industry, and some small scale banking sanctions, according to a source close to the talks who received a copy of it late Monday from a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Al-Monitor first reported earlier Tuesday.

“We have come here with a revised offer and we have come to engage with Iran in a meaningful way, our purpose being to make sure that we’ve had a good and detailed conversation, with the ambition that we see progress by the end of the meeting,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said ahead of the first round of talks Tuesday.

The revised international offer is “balanced” and “responsive” to what the six powers heard from the Iranians in three rounds of talks last year, Michael Mann, spokesman for Ashton, told journalists at a press briefing in Almaty Tuesday.

Talks got underway Tuesday at 1:30pm and broke off at about 4:30pm. Western officials later confirmed that there had been further consultations among the parties, including Iranian bilateral meetings with the Germans, British, Chinese and Russians, a diplomat said.

Talks will resume for a second day Wednesday, starting with a bilateral meeting between Ashton and Jalili, followed by a plenary session at 11am.

“We had a useful meeting today, discussions took place this evening, we are meeting again tomorrow,” a western official said late Tuesday.

The U.S. delegation to the talks is led by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and includes National Security Staff Senior Director for the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar, State Department arms control envoy Robert Einhorn, another State Department arms control advisor Jim Timbie, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer, and a veteran Farsi-speaking US diplomat who specializes in Iranian affairs Alan Eyre.

Iran’s delegation includes the Secretary of Supreme National Security Council Dr. Saeed Jalili, his deputy Ali Bagheri, legal/nonproliferation advisor Hamid-Reza Asgari,, the head of the Iranian foreign ministry IPIS think tank Mostafa Dolatyar, Iran deputy foreign minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi, and former Iranian ambassador to the UK Rasoul Movahedian-Atar.

(Photo: Participants sit at a table during talks on Iran's nuclear programme in Almaty February 26, 2013. REUTERS/Stanislav Filippov/Pool.)

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US diplomat: Six powers to outline ‘clear path’ for Iran sanctions relief, nuclear power


Almaty, Kazakhstan — Western diplomats said Monday they will put an updated proposal with some sanctions relief on the table when they meet with Iranian negotiators in Kazakhstan Tuesday for the first time in almost eight months.

They also stressed that they are hoping to get some momentum for a higher tempo of meetings with the Iranians in the coming months, possibly to be held at the technical experts level, in order to try to advance prospects for a deal (or assess Iran’s willingness to make a deal). Notably, diplomats signaled they would offer the Iranians a “clear pathway” to further sanctions relief and a civilian nuclear program, hinting at possible recognition of what Iran considers its right to enrich at the end of a step by step process.

“The real message is for Iran to appreciate there is a path forward for them to get the relief they are seeking and have a peaceful nuclear [energy] program,” a senior US official told journalists in Almaty Monday.

“What we will try to do here is put a modified proposal on the table, that both takes into account changes in Iran’s [nuclear] program, and is responsive to Iran’s desire for the P5+1 to recognize Iran’s needs,” the US diplomat said.

The modified international proposal is a “real, serious, and substantive” offer, the American official said. “We are trying to outline a pathway for sanctions relief. The President has been clear if Iran keeps all its obligations… under the NPT and IAEA….there is absolutely a pathway for it to have peaceful nuclear power.”

While western diplomats said they did not expect a breakthrough at the talks in Almaty this week, they did express the clear hope that Iran would be willing to continue talks soon at the technical level–if possible, before the Iranian New Year’s holiday of Nowruz in March.

“What I’d like is for the Iranians to see that the proposal put on the table is a serious one, a confidence building measure, not the final act in the play,” another nation’s diplomat at the talks told a few journalists in Almaty earlier Monday. “To go and consider it and possibly follow up at the experts level, to see if there’s some common ground.”

“Having been through the process before, I would not predict a decisive breakthrough tomorrow, although I’d be delighted if it happened,” he said. “I know usually both sides need time to consider what is put on the table.”

The revised international offer, proposed higher tempo of experts level meetings–which diplomats described as more productive and involving more direct US-Iran interchanges–and outlining path to further sanctions relief could have another purpose: to test out over time if Iran can say yes, or is assessed to be either unwilling or incapable of agreeing to a deal.

The second diplomat somewhat downplayed what has recently been heard as a growing concern in Washington, that the Iranian leadership may be almost incapable of making a deal even if it wanted one, including because of political infighting and unrealistic expectations exacerbated by Iran’s diplomatic isolation.

The Iranians are “sophisticated operators,” the diplomat close to the talks countered.

“There are real challenges for them in reaching a deal,” he acknowledged. “Not least, how to present it in a way that is a win-win solution. We all really want this to be a win-win end state.”

However, sanctions imposed last year on Iran’s energy and banking sectors “can only get lighter in response to steps taken by the Iran side,” he added.

US officials said the modified proposal had not been shared with the Iranians in advance of the Almaty meeting, so that the six powers could present it fully and explain what each element is meant to address. They declined to confirm details of the modified proposal, except to say it offered “some changes and steps in the arena of sanctions relief,” as the US official put it.

An official close to the Iranian delegation told Al-Monitor Monday that the Iranians were coming to Almaty “to listen,” to see if there are “any new ideas.” Continue reading