US staffs up to pursue intensified Iran final deal talks

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Diplomats and experts from six world powers and Iran have staffed up to pursue intensified, almost “constant” contacts to try to reach a final nuclear deal, a senior US administration official said Friday, ahead of a second round of political directors-Iran nuclear talks in Vienna next week. The parties have already agreed that sanctions relief in a final deal would be phased in, step by step, in response to specific action that Iran takes, the official said.

“These comprehensive negotiations will not be done for three days a month by the political directors,” the senior US administration official said. “Our experts have been and will be in constant contact between these rounds.”

“For example, last week, our experts spent a full week in Vienna to talk through various issues at a detailed level and explore options for a comprehensive solution,” the US official said. “When not in Vienna, they are back in capitals communicating with one another and working through various technical issues that are part of the negotiations.”

Lead US negotiator at the talks, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, spoke at length individually with every political director from the P5+1—the US, UK, France, China, Russia plus Germany—this past week, the US official said. Tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine do not appear to have yet impacted P5+1 co-ordination in the Iran negotiations, the official suggested, saying it was a US hope and priority that it does not.

Former Deputy US UN ambassador Brooke Anderson has joined the US Iran nuclear negotiating team as a senior advisor to Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry. Anderson, the former Obama National Security Council chief of staff, will be based out of Brussels full-time to coordinate with European Union negotiators and P5+1 partners and Washington, amid ongoing expert and political level consultations. The US has also added several more experts to its team, and several officials, particularly from the US Department of Energy, will be joining the negotiations in Vienna, the official said.

The US has not had bilateral talks with Iran since their meeting on the sidelines of the P5+1/Iran talks in Vienna last month, the U.S. official said.

To date, Iran and the P5+1 have fulfilled their commitments in the Joint Plan of Action, the six month interim nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November, the US official said. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently verified that Iran has diluted half of its 20% stockpile, among other steps laid out in the interim deal, the official noted.

The parties’ ability to reach the interim deal has given then a bit more confidence that they may be able to reach a final deal, she said, adding, however, that there are no guarantees.

With no issue agreed until all the issues are agreed, the final deal talks are like a “Rubik’s cube,” the US official said,  “a puzzle that has to be put together….over the course of the negotiations, until one has narrowed [it] down to the few toughest parts.”

In terms of some of those toughest issues, such as past possible military dimensions (PMDs) to Iran’s nuclear program, and ballistic missiles, the JPOA says that all UN Security Council resolutions on Iran must be addressed before a comprehensive agreement is reached, the US official said. “There are a variety of things in the UN Security Council resolutions, including the issue of ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. All of this will have to be addressed in some way.” But the US official did not elaborate on what would constitute satisfactorily addressing the issue. The more that Iran can demonstrate transparency to the IAEA, including on PMDs, the better the odds of reaching a final deal, the official said.

Regarding Iranian enrichment, the US official said while the US prefers that Iran supply its civil nuclear energy program without a domestic enrichment program, “we understand Iran feels strongly” that it should have one. “The JPOA envisions that a domestic enrichment program can be the subject of [comprehensive deal] discussions,” the official said. If all the parties to the comprehensive talks agree, “the program will be quite limited, under heavy monitoring and verification, for very specific purposes.”

Regarding sanctions relief for a possible final deal, the US official said, “we need to understand in great detail how to unwind sanctions, what by the executive branch, what by waivers, what by Congressional action. We are detailing all of that.”

The US, its P5+1 partners and Iran have agreed that “any sanctions relief [in a final deal] should… be phased in…in response to actions that Iran takes,” the US official said.  “It will happen over time, step by step.”

(Top Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman after the P5+1 reached a nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva, Switzerland, Nov. 24, 2013. // State Department Photo. Second photo, former US Ambassador to the UN Brooke Anderson has joined the US nuclear negotiating team as a senior advisor and will be based out of Brussels.)

Iran, world powers may hold nuclear talks in New York

Iran and six world powers may hold the first round of negotiations to seek a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal in New York in mid-February, a U.S. official and Iranian media reports said Monday. However,an Iranian official said Monday that the parties are still working on both a place and the dates for the meeting.

“It is our understanding that the first round of comprehensive negotiations will be in New York in mid-February with dates still being confirmed on schedules,” Marie Harf, State Department deputy spokesperson, said by email Monday. 

“New York – agreed to by EU High Representative Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif – has a similar support infrastructure to Geneva,” Harf said.  “We believe that United Nations and international support is important for work on a comprehensive agreement.”

The last three rounds of high-level P5+1/Iran nuclear talks that secured a six-month interim nuclear deal on November 24th took place in Geneva.

But Syrian peace talks that got underway in Geneva last week may continue to be regularly convened for months at the UN headquarters in Geneva, diplomats earlier suggested.

It was understood that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s team suggested to P5+1 counterparts last fall that the nuclear negotiations take place in UN cities, such as Geneva, Vienna and New York.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was reported to have met with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif in Davos last week to confer on the upcoming negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear deal.

An EU spokesperson said Monday, however, that he did not yet have confirmation of the venue or dates for the next meeting. An Iranian official too, speaking not for attribution, said the venue and dates of the meeting are still being worked on.

Zarif, who previously served as Iran’s envoy to the UN in New York, met with Ashton and P5+1 foreign ministers on the sidelines of the opening of the UN General Assembly last September. US and Iranian diplomats also met quietly in New York in the run up to UNGA in  September, including to discuss arranging the September 26th one on one side-bar meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif, and the historic phone call between US President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Al-Monitor previously reported.

Diplomats seek to narrow gaps to close Iran nuclear deal

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Geneva__ Diplomats from six world powers and Iran said today (Nov. 20) that they would try to narrow gaps to reach a nuclear agreement, but didn’t yet know if they would succeed by the end of this week.

“I sensed a real commitment…from both sides,” a senior western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said Wednesday. “Will it happen? We will see. But as always the devil is in the details.”

“We know what the remaining gaps are, let’s go to work, let’s see if we can get there in a way that is balanced, where all parties feel like this is a good agreement that heads us in the direction of the comprehensive agreement,” a senior U.S. Administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists here Wednesday, on the eve of the third round of high level talks here in under five weeks.

Amid unusually heavy diplomatic and police security, diplomats did not deny the possibility that if agreement is reached in the coming days, that P5+1 foreign ministers might come to Geneva for a signing ceremony, possibly as early as Friday.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is “open to going if it would continue to help narrow the gaps,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told journalists at the Dtate Department press briefing Wednesday. “He has not made a decision at this point to go, but obviously, we’re in close touch with the negotiating team and will make a decision, clearly, in the next 36 hours here.”

The main Geneva hotel used by the diplomat delegations kicked out several people with confirmed reservations Wednesdsy in seeming anticipation of more diplomatic arrivals and their security and press entourages.

Events began Wednesday with internal meetings among the P5+1 political directors. Then Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hosted European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her team for a working lunch at the Iranian mission that western diplomats described as very positive.

“There is a sense of strong commitment on both sides but important differences need to be narrowed down,” the western diplomat described the lunch meeting with the Iranians.

The six western powers and Iran then held a very brief plenary session at the Palais des Nations -just ten minutes–before breaking for a series Iran bilateral meetings, including with the Russians and the Europeans. Those meetings ran long, and a brief bilateral meeting between Iranian negotiators, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, and the US team, led by Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, was held, a senior State Department official said, adding they expected to meet again on Thursday.

“We did have a very brief bilateral meeting at the Palais des Nations with the Iranians [Wednesday] evening,” the State Department official said Thuraday. “Because other meetings ran long, the Iranians had to leave to go see their Foreign Minister [Zarif] for consultations, so we will find more time during the day today to continue those discussions.”

Of the remaining gaps, the western diplomat indicated they mostly concerned technical details in the first phase of the agreement, involving issues such as timelines.

“The deal has to be sustainable, spelled out in detail,” the western diplomat said. “It is important to have clear understanding on technical elements in order to ensure a robust and viable agreement. This needs to be done in a proper way – we will take the time we need.”

But the official seemed taken aback by a query if such details could take til the end of the year to sort out, saying they wanted to finish it well before then.

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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Negotiators seek progress at Iran nuclear talks

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Geneva__ Negotiators from Iran and six world powers said they were looking to make progress towards a nuclear deal at a new round of high-level talks due to get underway here Thursday.

“We hope to make concrete progress in the upcoming round,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said here Wednesday.

“The nuclear talks are complex and have entered a serious phase,” Mann said. Both sides “have agreed to keep the talks confidential in order to focus on the substance.”

“I believe there is a lot of work to be done,” Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told France 24 during a visit to Paris Tuesday. “We have made some progress, but there is a great deal of mistrust in Iran concerning the attitude, behavior and approach of some members of the P5+1.”

“I believe it is even possible to reach that agreement this week,” Zarif said, adding, however, that If “we don’t make a breakthrough at this round, it’s not a disaster.”

US officials, citing the seriousness of the new Iranian team and prospects for progress, have urged Congress to hold off on new Iran sanctions through the end of the year, arguing that a pause could help give momentum to intensified negotiations. In meetings with lawmakers, pro Israel groups and non-proliferations experts the past two weeks, Obama administration officials have said they are seeking to finalize an interim deal with Iran by January that would halt the advancement of Iran’s nuclear program, and then work out a comprehensive deal over the following six to 12 months.

“To the people of Israel, I want to say that the talks of the six world powers is the first step to stop the clock and prevent the nuclear program from going forward,” US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told Israel’s Channel 10 in an interview Sunday November 3rd. “Thus we will have the time to discuss a broad agreement that treats all the issues that concern us.”

Possible elements of an interim deal would likely include Iran suspending 20% enrichment, as well as possibly halting the installation of more centrifuges, and suspending work towards bringing online the Arak heavy water reactor, in exchange for some sanctions relief and the possible release of some Iranian frozen hard currency assets in banks abroad, unconfirmed reports have suggested. US officials have said they will not dismantle the architecture of major oil and banking sanctions in an interim step, but presumably in a broader end state deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem Wednesday, warned against an interim deal with Iran that would loosen the sanctions regime.

“I’d be very worried of any partial deals that enable Iran to maintain those capabilities but begin to reduce sanctions because… I think this could undermine the longevity and durability of the sanctions regime,” Netanyahu said.

“Our goal is an Iran that has only a peaceful nuclear program,” Kerry said in remarks with Netanyahu Wednesday. “It is incumbent on us…to know with certainty that it is a peaceful program and there is no capacity to produce a weapon of mass destruction.”

Observers offered mixed assessments of how much progress to expect at this round of talks, scheduled for Thursday and Friday. Iran presented a proposal at a meeting with the P5+1 here last month (October 15-16), followed by technical talks in Vienna last week. Iran has also held two meetings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and has invited IAEA chief Yukiya Amano to come to Iran next week (November 11), though Amano had not yet confirmed his attendance.

“If there is political will on both sides, it would not be out of the question for the two sides to announce a general framework of a [confidence building measure] CBM agreement at the end of this week, with the promise that experts can then flesh out details in the next 30 days, or something like that,” a former western official told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “We have been discussing these issues for a while now — there should be no surprises.”

(Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Paris Tuesday November 5, 2013.)

Negotiators beat back disinfo ahead of Iran nuclear talks


Iran has not yet shared with Brussels a preview of the nuclear proposal it is expected to present to six world powers in Geneva next week, a European Union official tells Al-Monitor.

Israel’s Channel 2 reported Wednesday that sanctions may soon be lifted on Iran after the US and Iran have secretly made progress towards a nuclear deal. The report by the channel’s Middle East affairs analyst Ehud Ya’ari cited in part a Wall Street Journal report describing curbs in Iran’s nuclear work that Iran may propose.

“There is ‘more than a likelihood’ that the accelerated diplomatic contacts will produce a deal,” the Times of Israel cited the Israel Channel 2 TV report, “adding that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin ‘will come in at a certain stage… and play an important role’” but “for now, though, it is the US and Iran that are doing the negotiating.”

But western officials tell Al-Monitor they have not received the proposal. Some US Iran watchers suggested some of the reports may be pushed by sources who may want to set expectations for the Iranian proposal unrealistically high and thus make whatever Iran presents next week look wanting.

While Iranian Foreign Minister and lead nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif stayed in New York last week for meetings with Iran experts and others, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), sources who met with him said he did not go into such detail about the proposal he is expected to present at the meeting with the P5+1 in Geneva October 15-16.

Asked if the Iranians had forwarded ideas or the proposal yet to Brussels, a spokesman for lead European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told Al-Monitor Wednesday, “No.”

US nonproliferation experts who have been consulting with the US administration this week said it was their understanding that the US has also not yet received any concrete details on what the Iranians may propose.

“The P5+1 will first want to hear what Iran brings to the table,” a former senior U.S. official who worked on the issue, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “It will not be in a position to offer a road map because such a roadmap takes time to develop and reach consensus on among the various players.”

Meantime, Iranian negotiators were also contending with hardline, would-be spoilers at home. Zarif wrote on his Facebook page that he had had to go to the hospital wiih stress-induced severe back pain Tuesday after hardline Kayhan newspaper falsely reported that he had told Iranian MPs that the Supreme Leader had disapproved of his having met with Secretary of State John Kerry in New York.

“After seeing the headline of a newspaper, I got extreme back and feet pain.” Zarif wrote on Facebook, Arash Karami wrote at Iran Pulse, adding: “He then wrote that after four or five hours, seeing that the pain had not subsided, he checked himself into a hospital.”

(Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif looks at his phone during a cabinet meeting Wednesday October 8, posted to Twitter by Negar Mortazavi.)

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Iran's Rouhani urges West to 'seize' moment for diplomacy

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On the eve of his trip to New York, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani continued his charm offensive, publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post Friday urging world leaders to “seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election” and his “mandate” for “prudent engagement.”

“To move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country’s nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher,” Rouhani wrote in the Post. “Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better.”

Rouhani’s push for dialogue on both regional and nuclear issues came as the White House continued to assert U.S. willingness for direct talks.

“We have heard a lot in the world from President Rouhani’s administration about its desire to improve the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s relations with the international community,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at the White House press briefing Thursday. “And President Obama believes we should test that assertion, and we are and we will do that.”

In his letter to Rouhani, “the President indicated that the U.S. is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes,” Carney said. “The letter also conveyed the need to act with a sense of urgency.”

Ahead of Rouhani's arrival in New York, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was scheduled to meet with Iranian scholars and think tank experts in New York Friday. Zarif is due to hold talks with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Monday, and with the British and Russian foreign ministers later in the week.

Rouhani will likely meet with French President Francois Hollande in New York on Tuesday, a French official told Al-Monitor Friday.

The White House has signaled Obama’s openness to meet with Rouhani, but has previously said there are no current plans for a meeting.

The media has gone into a frenzy about the possibility of an Obama-Rouhani handshake in New York. Both leaders are due to address the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday September 24th, Obama as the second speaker in the morning, and Rouhani, the seventh, in the afternoon.

“People here [in Washington] will want to see something very real from Tehran,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, told Al-Monitor Friday. “And of course the US has to reciprocate. But from the dominant US perspective, the onus is on Iran.”

Amir Mohebbian, a political commentator in Iran, told the New York Times in an interview that Iran is seeking short-term relief from sanctions imposed on its ability to transfer money. “We particularly want to be readmitted to the Swift system,” Mohebbian told the Times. What Iran would be willing to trade for such a concession is not yet clear, but scholars in the orbit of Zarif and Rouhani have suggested they would be amenable in an end-state deal to more aggressive IAEA monitoring and safeguards, capping enrichment at 5%, and limiting the number of Iran's centrifuges and enrichment sites.

“All the optics from Tehran — even from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — indicate that Iran is gearing up for a new attempt at a nuclear deal,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote at Foreign Policy Thursday. “If a deal can't be made in the next few months, it's hard to see another opportunity when the chances would ever be this good again.”

The new Iranian “administration has opened a door to a better relationship, and one better for the United States, about as widely as such doors ever are opened,” Paul Pillar, former senior US intelligence analyst, wrote at the National Interest. “The United States would be foolish not to walk through it.”

(Photo: Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Getty.)zp8497586rq