Iran complains over preparations for Moscow nuclear talks


Deputy nuclear negotiators for Iran and the international community spoke twice by phone last Friday, European diplomats said Monday. But the conversations have apparently not resolved Iranian concerns about upcoming nuclear talks in Moscow, as evinced by an Iranian PR push portraying international negotiators as intransigent and thus responsible for any failure at the meeting.

“Clearly there is a discernible change in Iranian tactics,” a European diplomat, speaking anonymously, told Al Monitor Monday.

Iran wants a meeting in advance of Moscow to prepare the agenda, Iranian analysts said. But European diplomats say the Iranian negotiators are playing games.

The Iran-EU bickering comes as diplomats from the six-nation negotiating group known as the P5+1 arrived in Strasbourg Monday to consult ahead of the next round of Iran nuclear talks, which are due to be held in Moscow June 18-19th. In advance of the meeting, however, Iranian media have steadily reported on a series of letters from Iran’s nuclear negotiators to their European Union counterparts, warning that the talks won’t go well if their requests for an experts meeting in advance aren’t granted.

Iranian media reported Monday on the latest such letter from Iran’s number two nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri to his European Union counterpart, Helga Schmid.

In the letter, dated Sunday June 10, Bagheri wrote that his boss, Saeed Jalilli, had complained to EU foreign policy chief Caatherine Ashton at a meeting in Baghdad last month that “your lack of preparation has caused the trend of the talks to be slowed down and even lead to standstill,” Iran’s IRNA news agency reported.

(A western official said what in fact became apparent in an Ashton-Jalili bilateral meeting in Baghdad on May 23rd were seeming divisions within Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. Specifically, Jalili in Baghdad distanced himself from some positions that his deputy Bagheri had taken in two preparatory meetings with Schmid held quietly in Geneva  in mid May, the source said. That may in part explain why western negotiators have been unreceptive this time to Iranian requests for an “experts meeting” ahead of the Moscow talks, proposing instead a meeting between chief political envoys.)

The Guardian’s Julian Borger adds Monday: “At the end of last week, it appears confusion slipped into farce when the deputy Iranian negotiator, Ali Bagheri, claimed to his EU counterpart, Helga Schmid, that he was not aware of any such proposal, even though he was there at the table when it was handed over. Consequently, Schmid resent the text over the weekend.”)

European diplomats said they hoped to possibly ease some of the acrimony in a telephone conversation scheduled to take place later Monday between Ashton and Jalili.

“We are keen, we want them to engage,” on a confidence building proposal put forward at the Baghdad meeting, the European diplomat said, of western expectations for Iran at the upcoming meeting in Moscow.

He said they have been “doubly surprised” that Bagheri, who he described as “genteel and cordial,” in previous interactions, is recently writing “such acerbic letters.”

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the lead US rep to the talks, flew to Strasbourg, France for meetings Monday and Tuesday with her counterparts from the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China as well as the EU’s Ashton.

“The United States remains united with other P5+1 partners in our commitment to serious preparations for the Moscow round of talks, and to enabling the diplomatic track to succeed,” the State Department said in a statement Sunday announcing Sherman’s travel. Continue reading

Iran Nuclear Talks in Baghdad Almost Foundered in Final Hours

Baghdad — Recently resumed Iran nuclear talks almost collapsed in Baghdad, just a couple hours before the chief international negotiator announced that the parties had agreed to hold a third meeting in Moscow next month, Western diplomats told Al-Monitor Friday.

The first Iran nuclear talks in over a year, in Istanbul last month, were roundly praised by all parties as constructive and held in a positive atmosphere.

The Baghdad meeting got off to a tense and difficult start Wednesday (May 23), after Iran gave a decidedly chilly reception to a proposed international package of inducements for curbing its 20 percent uranium enrichment. However, it was late on the talks’ second day (May 24) when the diplomatic process almost totally broke down, European diplomats told Al-Monitor. Nor has it been previously reported that a key impasse was not just between Iran and the six-nation negotiating group known as the P5+1; but rather among members of the P5+1 themselves about the language of the final statement. Specifically, the diplomats disagreed over whether to issue a final statement that might risk not moving to another meeting, or trying to gain acceptance by Iran to the P5+1 statement, so the diplomatic process could move ahead, diplomats said.

“The danger of a breakdown came in the afternoon of the second day,” a European diplomat told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity Friday. “We just didn’t look like we had agreement, enough compromise.”

At the very end, the final statement reflected a sufficient level of compromise so they could go forward, he said.

Other nations had thought they should take a harder line.

The diplomat declined to identify which nations in the P5+1 — the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China — pushed for taking a harder line. But he did say that lead international negotiator, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, was ultimately able to find a compromise in working out the text of the final document that every member of the group unanimously endorsed. The statement said while significant gaps remain between Iran and the P5+1, there was enough common ground to move to another meeting to try to advance areas of agreement.

“Obviously it’s a lot harder in Baghdad because of the security situation,” said the diplomat. “But [Ashton’s team] was happy to avail themselves of the Iraqi hosts.” Ashton’s team got both Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister (and former oil minister) Hussein al-Shahristani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari “to engage with the Iranians to understand what their position is,” the diplomat said as one example.

She also sent the Chinese and Russian negotiators into an eleventh-hour trilateral meeting with the Iranians late Thursday. At the meeting, Iran proposed three venues acceptable to it for a follow-up meeting: Astana, Kazakhstan; Beijing or Moscow. At a plenary meeting at the conclusion of the talks, it only took five minutes for all the diplomats to settle on Moscow.

“What she wanted to do is to make sure we move forward, but not move forward at any cost,” the diplomat said. “I think she found that balance.”

“The bottom line is: she laid out a strategy that says, ‘Let’s get clear what the views are: to get enough agreement from the Iranians to move to a more detailed examination of the two proposals,” he said. “This is unprecedented.”

Ashton “doesn’t want talks for talks’ sake,” a second, senior European diplomat said in an interview with Al-Monitor Friday. On this point, all six nations in the P5+1 agree, the second diplomat said.

The difficulty of the Baghdad meetings actually overshadowed some important developments in their approach to the negotiations, the senior diplomat added. Continue reading

‘Intense’ Iran nuclear talks end with agreement to meet again

Amman_Iran and six nations ended two days of “intense” and difficult nuclear talks in Baghdad late Thursday with no breakthroughs but a plan to meet again in Moscow next month, I report with Barbara Slavin on the front page:

The chief international negotiator, EU High Rep Catherine Ashton, announced that another meeting would be held in Moscow, with delegations arriving June 17 and meeting June 18-19. She described the two days of discussions with the Iranians in Baghdad as “very intense and detailed.”

American and European diplomats also offered more insight into their theory that their leverage in the negotiations will increase as new sanctions move forward–not by offering Iran a way to avert them.

“Maximum pressure is not yet being felt in Iran,” a senior American diplomat told a group of journalists at the conclusion of the Baghdad talks, on the condition of anonymity. European Union sanctions on Iranian oil and US sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, both due to be fully implemented in July, “increase leverage on the negotiation as it proceeds forward,” the official said.

“The Iranians don’t like it,” the diplomat continued. “They hope and would rather we not put additional sanctions on. Indeed they are not at all pleased that soon after Istanbul, the president [Barack Obama] signed a new executive order [sanctioning Iran for supplying technical assistance to Syria to repress dissidents]. We heard about that.”

Notably, the P5+1 did not make public the detailed package of inducements for a confidence building measure under which Iran would curb its 20% enrichment, as western diplomats indicated earlier in the week they planned to do. Perhaps a sign they may be prepared to sweeten the deal some ahead of the next meeting in Moscow next month, given how coldly it was received by the Iranians.

That’s how negotiations work, perhaps.

Lead American envoy to the talks, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, travels from Amman Jordan today to Israel to consult with Israeli leaders about the talks. She may travel on to Saudi Arabia after that or return to Washington.

Read our full piece here.


Iran talks resume in Baghdad after “difficult” first day

Baghdad_Western negotiators seemed somewhat rattled after what they acknowledged was a rough day of talks with Iran over a proposed confidence building measure.

“It has been a difficult day, but not a bad one,” a senior U.S. administration official told journalists on condition of anonymity after talks in Baghdad Wednesday stretched late into the night. “We discussed difficult issues.”

The talks resumed for a second day Thursday, and have gone on longer than anticipated, as international negotiators tried to salvage at least agreement on another meeting date in the near term.

American and European diplomats said they fully expected that the talks in Baghdad would be difficult, as the teams get down to the tough issues of what the international community would be prepared to offer in exchange for Iran curbing some of its most sensitive nuclear work, including its 20% uranium enrichment activities.

But they did not seem to fully anticipate the degree to which the Iranians thought the specific P5+1 package laid out in the closed-door talks Wednesday differed from their understanding of what might be on the table, specifically by offering no prospect for sanctions relief except the provision of civilian aircraft spare parts. (The Iranians did not receive the package in writing, they said, presumably because the P5+1 hasn’t yet made it public.)

Western diplomats have suggested that European Union sanctions on Iran’s oil exports will go ahead July 1 even if Iran gives up its 20% enrichment, sends out its 20% stockpile and closes the fortified Fordo enrichment facility.

“What we heard in Istanbul was more interesting,” a member of the Iranian diplomatic delegation told Reuters.

“We believe the reason (the powers) are not able to reach a result is America,” he said. “(They) came to Baghdad without a clear mandate so we think the atmosphere is difficult.”

“I would have expected nothing else but for the Iranians to say the package is unbalanced,” the senior U.S. administration official said.

“It is not accurate to say there are no sanctions measures put on the table,” the official said, apparently referring to the airplane parts. “We tried to be responsive” to our understanding of what the Iranians may be interested in. Apparently, the package did not fulfill any of those expectations.

“We are at the beginning of the process, not the end of it,” the official said.

The Iranian delegation was meeting with the P5+1 negotiators for a second time Thursday midday.

The meeting is expected to conclude sometime later Thursday afternoon.


Glimmers of optimism for Iran confidence-building deal ahead of Baghdad

The Guardian‘s longtime Iran watcher Julian Borger sees signs for cautious optimism ahead of the next round of nuclear talks in Baghdad next week:

My understanding is that Ali Bagheri, the deputy Iranian negotiator, got in touch with his opposite number at the EU, Helga Schmid, the day after the Istanbul talks to ensure that the ball kept rolling. In the run-up to the next round of talks in Baghdad next Wednesday, the two have met at an undisclosed location to draw up an agenda. Continue reading

Shadow diplomacy

The EU’s Helga Schmid and Iran’s Ali Bagheri held meetings in Geneva May 6-7, a diplomatic source told the Back Channel.

The deputy nuclear negotiators for the P5+1 and Iran respectively are due to hold a second meeting this week, but I’ve been asked to hold off reporting the date and location as negotiators are seeking to minimize publicity for the preparatory talks. Schmid and Bagheri are meeting to prepare the agenda for the next round of Iran nuclear talks due to be held May 23rd in Baghdad.

As I noted in a column today, there has been a flurry of decidedly unpublicized diplomatic activity ahead of the next round of Iran nuclear talks, much of it taking place in the shadows: Continue reading

Iran nuclear talks prep meetings to get underway–quietly

My colleague Barbara Slavin hears from a well-placed Iranian source that the EU’s deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid and Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri are holding their first meeting this week to prepare for the next round of P5+1/Iran talks, which are due to take place in Baghdad on May 23rd.

A spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and deputy Schmid said that the office did not intend to announce such meetings or provide details, but also did not deny the meeting is taking place.

“Schmid and Bagheri are in regular contact to prepare for the next round of talks to be held on May 23 rd in Baghdad – as agreed in Istanbul,” a spokesperson for Ashton told me Monday.

Schmid and Bagheri are indeed meeting, but not in Brussels, another western diplomatic source who asked for anonymity indicated Monday.

Western negotiators have made clear that they believe more can be accomplished in the exceedingly hairy Iran nuclear talks process in such quiet meetings–out of the spotlight.

Meantime, Washington’s rep to the Iran P5+1 talks, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, was traveling in Europe last weekend, to attend the Daimler US-European Forum on Global Issues conference, held in Berlin May 3-4.

While in Berlin, Sherman also participated in an unannounced political directors meeting on Iran with her counterparts from France, Germany, and the UK, a source at the conference said. But Schmid wasn’t there, he said.

A State Department spokeswoman said last week that Sherman may participate in some of the unannounced preparatory meetings ahead of Baghdad. Continue reading