US, Iran hold ‘intensive, useful’ talks as negotiations intensify

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Washington, D.C.__ U.S. and Iranian nuclear negotiators have held two days of “intensive.. useful” talks, but gaps still remain, Iranian officials said Tuesday.

The talks, lasting 12 hours over two days in Geneva, were “intensive…but useful,” and “held in a good atmosphere,” an Iranian diplomat told Al-Monitor after talks ended Tuesday. “Gaps are still there. Consultations will continue.”

The US-Iran meetings “were business-like, and we covered all the issues that we have been discussing so far in Vienna,” a second Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “The exchange helped us better understand each others’ positions.”

“After these meetings in Geneva and bilateral meetings with the French, Russians and the Germans in the next few days, we hope we will be better prepared to start the talks next week in Vienna,” the second Iranian official said.

Iranian negotiators are due to hold a bilateral meeting with French counterparts in Geneva on Wednesday, and with Russia in Rome on Thursday and Friday. Iran will hold a bilateral meeting with Germany’s political director in Tehran Sunday, ahead of the next round of final deal talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna June 16-20.

The US delegation to Geneva, led by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, has not yet publicly commented on the bilateral consultations with Iran, which were held at an undisclosed location. (Journalists in Geneva said they believed the talks were being held at Geneva’s President Wilson hotel, where the US delegation was thought to be staying, but the hotel would not confirm that.)

State Department and European Union spokespeople stressed that the series of bilateral meetings underway this week were all in support of the comprehensive deal negotiations being carried out by the P5+1 under the coordination of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The talks are now intensifying, they said, as the parties aim to see if they can reach a final accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires, or will need to be extended for up to another six months.

“The E3/EU+3’s diplomatic efforts to reach a comprehensive solution are now intensifying,” Michael Mann, Ashton’s spokesman, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “They have always taken place at different levels and in different formats and included bilateral meetings in support of the central E3/EU+3 nuclear negotiations led by [High Representative] Ashton.”

“We’ve always said that we would engage the Iranians bilaterally if it can help advance our efforts, of course acting in total coordination with the P5+1 and the EU,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told journalists at the State Department press briefing Monday.

“We also said that there was going to be an intensification of diplomatic efforts, particularly getting closer to July 20th,” Harf said “If we’re going to seriously test whether we can reach a diplomatic solution here, we need to engage in as much active diplomacy as possible.”

Meantime, France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday that it would be hard to close wide gaps over the size of Iran enrichment capacity in a final deal by next month.

“We are still hitting a wall on one absolutely fundamental point which is the number of centrifuges which allow enrichment,” Fabius told France Inter radio Tuesday, Reuters reported. “We say that there can be a few hundred centrifuges, but the Iranians want thousands so we’re not in the same framework.”

The timing of Fabius’ public comments, as the US held the first lengthy, one on one talks with Iran since last year, raised some eyebrows in Washington.

Asked about them, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Tuesday the focus should remain on the “behind the scenes” talks, not “public demands.”

“Subconsciously, [Fabius] hates when [the] US-Iran meet bilaterally for the usual French reasons,” Jeremy Shapiro, a Brookings fellow in foreign policy studies, told Al-Monitor. “More consciously, he doesn’t trust the US as negotiators and believes he plays an important role in shoring them up and ensuring that they don’t give away the store.”

France’s new political director Nicolas de Riviere will take part in bilateral discussions with Iranian negotiators in Geneva on Wednesday, Araghchi told Iran’s IRNA news agency.

(Photo of Iran’s delegation, including Deputy Foreign Ministers Abbas Araghchi and Majid Ravanchi ,and the head of its expert team Hamid Baeedinejad, heading to the Geneva talks on June 9, 2014, from Iran MFA website.)

Iran, P5+1 to meet June 16-20, EU says

Top European Union and Iranian negotiators on Tuesday called for a new round of Iran nuclear deal talks to be held June 16-20 in Vienna, after two days of “very long and useful discussions” in Istanbul, the EU said Tuesday.

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton held more than eight hours of meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over the past two days in Istanbul, “in order to inform the negotiations” on Iran’s nuclear program, European Union foreign policy spokesman Michael Mann said Tuesday. “They explored different possibilities as part of an ongoing process.”

The next formal round of comprehensive deal talks between the P5+1 and Iran will be held from 16-20 June in Vienna, the EU said.

An experts level meeting should take place before that, June 5-6 in Vienna, the EU later announced.

“Other political discussions will continue as and when needed,” Mann said.

As yet this year, the US and Iran have not pursued bilateral talks outside of meetings on the sidelines of the Vienna talks, US and Iranian officials have told Al-Monitor. But Washington appears to be considering doing so as the parties try to conclude a final accord by the July 20th expiration of a six-month interim deal.

“New options should be looked into and brought forward,” Zarif told journalists upon arrival in Vienna Monday.

Zarif was accompanied to Istanbul by Iran Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzyieh Afkham, Deputy Foreign Ministers Majid Takht Ravanchi and Abbas Araghchi, and the head of Iran’s expert team Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said.

Ashton was thought to be accompanied by Deputy Helga Schmid, chief of staff James Morrison, and nonproliferation advisor Stephan Kllement.

Three days in March: New details on how US, Iran opened direct talks

Late last February, after six world powers and Iran wrapped up nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan (Feb.26-27), two members of the U.S. nuclear negotiating team secretly flew to Oman where they rendezvoused at a beach-front villa with two American officials who had arrived from Washington.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Biden’s national security advisor, flew to the Arabian Sea port of Muscat from Washington. White House Iran advisor Puneet Talwar and State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn flew to Oman from the Almaty nuclear talks.

For the first days of March, the American officials, accompanied by some administrative and logistical support staff, stayed at a beach-side villa owned by Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, whose government had regularly offered to discreetly host US-Iran talks safely away from the media spotlight.

In Oman, the US officials met with an Iranian delegation led by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Asghar Khaji, Al-Monitor has learned.

Khaji, then Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American affairs, had previously served as Iran’s envoy to the European Union in Brussels from 2008 to 2012. In Brussels, in January 2008, Khaji accompanied Iran’s new nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to a dinner hosted by then EU High Rep and chief  nuclear negotiator Javier Solana, a US cable published by Wikileaks notes. In March 2009, Khaji became the first Iranian official to meet with NATO  in almost three decades, to discuss Afghanistan, NATO officials said.

After he became Deputy Foreign Minister in 2012, in his capacity as the Iranian diplomat who oversaw Europe and American issues, Khaji regularly liaised with Swiss officials who serve–in the absence of official US-Iran relations–as the U.S. protecting power in Iran. But Khaji wasn’t a figure particularly well known to western Iran watchers.

In Oman in March, both Khaji’s and Burns’ teams, as well as their Omani hosts, went to some lengths to keep the unusual meeting off the radar. Burns, the second highest diplomat in the United States, did not appear on the State Department public schedules at all the first four days in March, without explanation. Similarly, Iran’s Foreign Ministry and media published nothing about Khaji’s trip to Muscat, although his March 7 trip to Switzerland, a few days after the secret talks with the Americans, was announced by his Swiss Foreign Ministry hosts and received press coverage. The next week in March, Omani media also extensively covered the visit of Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast to Oman, including his visit to the Omani New Agency and with Oman’s Information minister, complete with photos, almost as if it were a decoy mission to draw attention away from the earlier one.

“On every visit to Oman, the U.S. delegation stayed in a beach-side villa controlled by the Omani government,” a source familiar with the meetings told Al-Monitor. “All of the meetings with Iran occurred at this site, so as to ensure U.S. officials would never have to leave the villa and risk detection by journalists or others.”

Both US and Iranian sources briefed on the US-Iran March meeting in Oman say that while it allowed for more candid, direct exchanges than at the seven nation P5+1/Iran talks, that it did not show an opening for real movement in positions on either side before the Iran presidential elections in June.

“It was a useful engagement, but not much progress was made, because the Iran leadership was not really interested,” a former US official, speaking not for attribution, said. “It helped provide some basis [for understanding]… It was clear that while there could be more intensive and candid discussions bilaterally, the real progress wasn’t going to be possible” before the Iranian elections.

Another meeting was tentatively planned to be held in May, another former official told Al-Monitor, but the Iranians apparently backed out.

Oman to US: Iran is ready to begin a quiet dialogue

The Omanis had encouraged the U.S., from before President Barack Obama came into office, to pursue prospects for direct dialogue with Iran, and regularly offered US envoys updates on the current mood in Iran officialdom on the matter.

Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi “offered Oman as both an organizer and a venue for any meeting the U.S. would want with Iran – if kept quiet,” US Ambassador to Oman Richard Schmierer wrote in a December 7, 2009 US cable to Washington, released by Wikileaks.

Iran “is ready to begin a quiet dialogue ‘at a lower level’ with the U.S.,” Sultan Qaboos’ long-time special Iran envoy and Culture Minister Abdul `Aziz al-Rowas told the previous US ambassador Gary Grappo, according to an April 2009 cable he wrote to Washington.

“They are ready and want to start, and you should not wait,” al-Rowas told the US envoy. “You have many more bargaining tools with them than they have against you; use all of them,” he advised, adding that the US and Iran also share interests, too, including in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and countering narcotics in Central Asia. “They don’t like to admit these things, but they need you in the region.”

But efforts by the Obama administration to get direct talks going with Iran were frustrated by domestic turmoil in the wake of Iran’s disputed June 2009 presidential polls. In October 2009, Burns and Iran’s Jallili met one-on-one, on the sidelines of P5+1 Iran nuclear talks in Geneva, at which a nuclear fuel swap deal was announced. But Iran later backed away from the agreement, after it came under domestic criticism.

Increasingly convinced that Iran was paralyzed by domestic political infighting from moving forward on a nuclear compromise, the U.S. and Europeans moved in late 2009 and 2010 to persuade international partners that it was time to increase economic pressure on Iran to try to bring it to seriously negotiate.

“No U.S. president in the last 30 years had gone to as much effort as President Obama to engage Iran,” Burns told China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at a December 2009 meeting, according to a US cable summarizing the meeting. The United States was “frustrated,” Burns explained, that the Iranians had “walked back” from the fuel swap agreement reached in Geneva. Washington “had sought creative solutions to build confidence with Iran…[but] Iran’s failure to follow through…had been disappointing.”

P5+1 talks with Iran ground to a halt at a gloomy January 2011 meeting in Istanbul attended by a grim-faced Burns. Iran’s Jalili, complaining of a headache, had avoided attending most of the meeting, and had refused to meet with Burns. Nuclear talks between the six world powers and Iran would not resume for over a year, until April 2012.

The “bilat” channel gains pace after Rouhani’s election

But the Omanis persisted, throughout the diplomatic stalemate, with their quiet efforts to forge US-Iran dialogue, and their patience eventually paid off.

In 2011 and 2012, Talwar and Sullivan–then serving as deputy chief of staff  and policy planning chief to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–participated in at least two lower-level, “preparatory” meetings with the Iranians, facilitated by the Omanis, to see about the prospect of a bilateral channel to be led on the US side by Burns, a former US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. Those preparatory talks included a July 7, 2012 meeting in Oman attended by Sullivan and Talwar, but not Burns, the AP reported.

“I was a member of a preparatory exploratory team that met with the Iranians on a couple of occasions to see if we could get talks going on the nuclear program,” Talwar told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military affairs last month. “We met with the Iranians in Oman last summer. We had another meeting in March of this year.”

“It turned out the Iranians could not move forward with the talks at that point,” Talwar said, referring to the March 2013 meeting in Oman led by Burns and Khaji.

But the US-Iran back channel got traction after the election of Hassan Rouhani, and gained rapid pace after an exchange of letters in August between Presidents Obama and Rouhani. “President Rouhani and the Iranians agreed to move forward with the talks at that time,” Talwar said.

“We then had an accelerating pace of discussions bilaterally with the Iranians,” Talwar said, stressing that the one-on-one talks with the Iranians were “tied from the get-go to the P5+1 process [and] . . . focused exclusively on the nuclear issue.”

Since Rouhani’s inauguration in August, there have been at least five rounds of bilateral talks between the U.S. and Iran, in Oman, New York and Geneva. On the U.S. side, they’ve been led by Burns, and on the Iran side, by Khajji’s successor, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American affairs Majid Ravanchi, sometimes joined by his colleague, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araghchi. Both Araghchi and Ravanchi are members of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, led by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

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Diplomat says P5+1 divided over draft Iran accord

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Geneva__ Iran and world powers were supposed to resume ministerial level talks here Saturday morning but the western powers in the P5+1 are divided and were meeting among themselves, a senior diplomat involved in the talks told al-Monitor in an interview Saturday.

“It is obvious, there are serious differences” among the P5+1, the senior diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said. “We were supposed to restart negotiations at 8:30am, but the western side is divided.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry was supposed to resume meetings with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Saturday morning after a five hour meeting Friday that diplomats described as productive. But instead, the State Department said Saturday that Kerry would first meet with Ashton and three European counterparts, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Ashton was then scheduled to meet with Fabius and Zarif.

“In fact, the French are the big upset in the way of an agreement,” the senior diplomat said, on condition his name or nationality not be named.

He said there is a joint P5+1 draft text of a framework agreement the parties have been working on. Good progress was being made, including in the five hour trilateral meeting between Kerry, Zarif and Ashton Friday.

But the French say it is not our text, the diplomat said, a point which Fabius himself subsequently confirmed.

“There is an initial text that we do not accept,” Fabius told France’s Inter radio Saturday morning, according to a translation provided by a French reporter here. “There are several points that we are not satisfied with,” concerning the Arak heavy water facility and Iran’s stockpiles of 20% uranium. “How can we go down to 5% enrichment that is less dangerous. If those questions will no be addressed it will not be possible [to reach agreement]. I wants a deal but we have to be careful not to be played for fools.”

“The question of the Iranian nuclear issue is very important for international security,” Fabius told journalists here Saturday after leaving a meeting with Ashton, Kerry and his European counterparts. “But there are still the important points on which we have to work. I still hope there will be an agreement, but there are still things we have to” resolve.

France’s concerns were reported to center on wanting Iran to halt work on the Arak heavy water facility during the negotiations, as well as on Iran’s stockpile of 20% uranium.

Another P5+1 diplomat told Al-Monitor Saturday that no one is telling the diplomats here what is going on, describing the situation as ‘outrageous.’

Asked about the complaints of a chaotic situation, a spokesperson for Ashton said all of the parties here are working very hard and are making progress.

“The E3+3 continues to work together intensively to make progress on the Iranian nuclear file,” Michael Mann said. “There are a number of meetings going on. And regular debriefings. ”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived here Saturday around 11am to join the talks. He decided to come only late Friday, concerned about an unspecified hitch that had developed in the talks in the afternoon, another diplomat said late Friday.

The Chinese foreign minister is also expected to arrive later Saturday afternoon, reports citing Chinese state radio said.

After talks with Kerry and the Europeans Saturday morning, Kerry, Zarif and Ashton were to resume trilateral talks. It’s still unclear if an agreement will be reached here at this meeting which has extended into a third day, or if talks to sign a possible framework deal will require a subsequent meeting or meetings.

(Photo of US Secretary of State John Kerry, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and his deputies Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht-Ravanchi, by Fars News. Also pictured, US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and nonproliferation James Timbie; and Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid.)

Kerry and Iran’s Zarif meet on nuclear accord, as talks extended

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Geneva __ Talks on a prospective Iran nuclear accord will be extended for at least a third day after US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met here for almost five hours Friday with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The negotiations were productive, but there is much work still to be done, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi said as his delegation returned to the diplomats’ hotel just before midnight after the meeting.

There are only a few issues outstanding, but they are significant, another member of the Iranian delegation said.

Neither Kerry nor Ashton said anything upon their return from the meeting.

Talks are set to continue here on Saturday at 8:30am, Iranian diplomats said.

It’s unclear if a formal agreement will be signed here this weekend, but there was still some sense of expectation that it could happen, as well as signs that progress was being made on the substance of a prospective deal, for the first time in years.

“I want to emphasize there is not an agreement at this point in time, but the P51 is working hard,” Kerry said upon his arrival in Geneva Friday. “We hope to try to narrow those differences, but I don’t think anybody should mistake that there are some important gaps that have to be closed.”

As talks appeared to be making rapid progress Thursday, Kerry decided to fly here from Israel, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vehemently denounced the prospective deal as a historical mistake that would reward Iran for making few concessions. US President Obama called Netanyahu Friday to reiterate his commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, as well as his preference to try to peacefully resolve the issue.

Foreign Ministers from France, Britain and Germany also flew to Geneva Friday, and held consultations with Ashton, before she hosted the five-hour trilateral meeting with Kerry, Zarif and their teams at the EU mission here. Political directors from the six powers seemed to be holding simultaneous meetings back at the hotel.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov decided only late Friday that he should come–apparently related to a crisis or roadblock in the talks that came up in thr afternoon, a diplomat said –and is expected to arrive in Geneva Saturday morning. The diplomat indicated that there are intense negotiations underway on the draft text of a prospective accord, involving parties submitting amendments and revisions. In Russia’s opinion, he said, some sides–he implied the U.S.–were making mistakes, which he declined to clarify.

China’s deputy foreign minister is also expected to arrive here Saturday, reports said. “We are working very hard,” a member of China’s negotiating team said Friday.

Iranian and western diplomats have said they hope to reach a framework accord that would seek to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program in two phases. In the first phase, Iran would agree to suspend certain of its nuclear activities–such as 20% enrichment and the installation of more centrifuges–and accept more verification and monitoring, probably for six months, in exchange for limited sanctions relief. By halting the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program, a senior US administration official explained in a background briefing on the eve of talks Wednesday, that would give time and space for the P5+1 and Iran to try to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement that could constrain Iran’s enrichment program and implement mechanisms to verify that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons, in exchange for the lifting of major oil and banking sanctions.

But Iran has made clear that recognition of what it sees as its right as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty to domestically enrich nuclear fuel be part of any end state deal, while some western powers hesitate to grant Iran such upfront permission. Thus working out a framework agreement that seeks to lay out both a first step and end state deal at the same time is complex, even among negotiators of good will.

Separately, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced Friday that IAEA director general Yukiya Amano will travel to Iran on Monday (Nov. 11), his first visit in over two years.

Kerry is likely to stay in Geneva until Sunday, officials suggested. He will then travel to Abu Dhabi, before returning to the United States, but has had to cancel previously planned stops in Algeria and Morocco, the State Department said.

Iran FM Zarif ‘Hopeful’ on Nuclear Agreement; Kerry to join talks

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Geneva__ Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said his team will draft the text of a framework agreement with representatives of six world powers, the P5+1, on Friday as negotiations seemed to gather such pace that there was talk that an agreement could even be signed on Friday or Saturday. Amid signs of rapid progress, US Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Geneva Friday to join the talks, a US official said.

“Secretary Kerry will travel to Geneva, Switzerland on Friday at the invitation of EU High Representative Ashton in an effort to help narrow differences in negotiations,” a senior State Department official told Al-Monitor late Thursday.

“We are talking about a framework agreement that includes three steps: objectives, end game, and a first step,” Zarif told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, one of a series he gave in his Geneva hotel at the conclusion of the first day of a new round of nuclear talks that were stunning for their sense of momentum after years of no progress.

“If there is political will, it is not so difficult,” Zarif said. “We are hopeful we can do it. My preference is to be able to move forward quickly.”

“We have to see,” he said. “It’s too early to judge.”

Zarif said significant progress on the outlines of a framework deal had been made at meetings over the past month, including at technical talks in Vienna last week. “In the course of the past three weeks…the ingredients of each step have been more clearly defined,” Zarif said.

“Maybe we are sill at the recipe stage,” he said, regarding what reciprocal steps the six powers might offer Iran in exchange for Iranian steps to restrain its nuclear program in the first phase of an envisioned two-step deal. “We know the ingredients, and the right amount of each ingredient in the recipe.”

On Thursday, Zarif had breakfast with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, then headed the Iranian delegation at a brisk, 45-minute plenary meeting with diplomats from the P5+1. Then the Iranian team, headed by Zarif’s deputy Abbas Araghchi, proceeded to hold four, one-hour meetings, first with three European powers, then with the Russians, then with the U.S. team, led by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and then with the Chinese.

“We had a good plenary,” in which all the delegations expressed the desire “to find common ground in order to move forward,” Zarif said. “Then we had rather long bilateral discussions.”

Next comes “starting serious draft writing,” Zarif said. “We know the challenge: just putting on paper all these discussions…We will already have made good progress. Whether it will be enough to sign a joint communique in the afternoon, it all depends on how much progress” is made Friday.

Asked if the sense of momentum towards a framework deal after years of little or no progress was an illusion, Zarif said he didn’t think so, but cautioned there were still many potential obstacles.

“I think we’re on the right track,” he said. “It’s a very difficult stage we are in–trying to put …that which was said [sometimes] informally [in meetings] on paper, to have consensus.”

“We should not prejudge the outcome,” Zarif said. “The general trend is positive.”

An hour or so after Zarif spoke Thursday, lead US negotiator Wendy Sherman, returning to the diplomats’ Geneva hotel, had an impromptu tete a tete with Iranian deputy foreign minister Araghchi, after encountering him in front of the elevator. The two diplomats spoke for a few minutes in a hallway off the lobby, before Sherrman went up.

Araghchi earlier told Al-Monitor in a brief interview that his team’s one hour meeting with Sherman and the US negotiating team Thursday was “very useful and productive.”

A U.S. official, speaking not for attribution Thursday, told Al-Monitor that from the U.S. perspective, the talks made real headway in the afternoon meetings.

(Top Photo: Lead US Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, arrives for Iran nuclear talks at the United Nations in Geneva Thursday November 7, 2013, accompanied by her deputy and veteran State Department arms control advisor James Timbie. Credit: Derrick Bridiers, US Mission in Geneva Flickr account. Bottom photo: US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman talks with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi at the Geneva Intercontinental Hotel after an impromptu meeting in front of the elevators Thursday evening November 7, 2013, as negotiations towards a framework deal seemed to be making headway. By ISNA.)

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