‘Sticker shock’ meeting: Wide gaps as negotiators start drafting Iran accord

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Vienna_ The first drafting round of Iran final deal talks ended with few signs of progress Friday, but negotiators from all sides said they had expected difficult moments along the way as they got down to negotiating the tough issues involved in a comprehensive deal.

It was a “useful, but at times difficult” meeting,” a senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in Vienna after the conclusion of the talks Friday. “But that is not entirely unexpected.”

“We knew there would be” such difficult moments, the U.S. official said. “We are at the beginning of the drafting process. We have a significant way to go. There are wide gaps. … We do not know if we will be able to conclude” a final deal by July 20, but that is still the goal.

The West should “overcome its illusions,” and return to the talks “with more realism,” a senior Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Friday night, when asked how to get the talks unstuck.

“Iran’s red lines” are well known, the senior Iranian official said. “There were no surprises” in the positions Iran presented here, he indicated.

Negotiators from the US and the European Union said they expected another round of political director meetings between Iran and the P5+1 to be held in June in Vienna, but would announce the dates later, as they determine if they need an additional meeting, as they aim to conclude an accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires.

The past three rounds of final deal talks held in Vienna this year have focused on agenda setting, and on putting all the issues on the table that need to be addressed in a final accord. This was the first meeting where we “now talked about ways to bridge those gaps,” a different, far more difficult process, the senior US official said.

The US and Iranian negotiating teams held a long, three hour bilateral meeting in Vienna Friday morning that State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf characterized as “serious and straightforward.”

Lead US negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman also joined in at the end of the last meeting Friday between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Asked by Al-Monitor if the US and Iran have had held additional bilateral meetings outside of the ones announced on the sidelines of Vienna, the US official did not answer yes or no directly. “I don’t have additional details for you,’ the official said.

We are obviously not going to be able to “resolve all our differences in four days in Vienna,” the senior US official earlier said. That’s “why in between sessions there are continuous expert level discussions, political director conversations,” etc. “I also foresee an increasing number of in-person meetings.”

“This was the ‘sticker shock’ meeting,” a former senior U.S. official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Friday.

“Significant differences remain on how many centrifuges Iran should be permitted to have to meet ‘practical needs’ for nuclear energy and research, as well as significant differences on the length of the agreement and the pace and scope of sanctions relief accompanying a final deal,” the former U.S. official said. “Other areas, like the possible military dimensions of past Iranian nuclear research, are also tricky.”

“So, instead of papering over these differences in a post-meeting statement, the negotiators apparently felt that they had to return to their capitals to consult with national leaders about how they might overcome them,” the former US official suggested. “It remains to be seen if that is possible, but both sides still appear committed to overcoming the nuclear crisis.”

(Photo of members of the US negotiating team-senior non proliferation advisor Jim Timbie, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Amb. Brooke Anderson, Treasury’s Adam Szubin, NSC Middle East advisor Rob Malley, State Department Persian language spokesperson Alan Eyre, walking out of Vienna’s Palais Coburg by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.)

U.S. cautions Iran deal not imminent or certain

Vienna__ A senior U.S. official took a tougher line on prospects for reaching a final deal as negotiators from Iran and six world powers arrived here to begin the first drafting round towards a comprehensive Iran nuclear accord.

“Everyone comes to the table wanting a diplomatic solution,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in Vienna Tuesday. “But having the intention does not mean it will happen.”

“Frankly, this is very, very difficult. Though we are drafting… it does not mean agreement is imminent,” the U.S. official cautioned. “There are a range of complicated issues to address. We do not know if Iran will accept” taking the steps necessary.

I am not optimistic or pessimistic, but realistic, the US official said, in answer to a question about what seemed a notably less upbeat forecast about prospects for reaching a compromise than in recent earlier rounds focused more on agenda-setting. She was also reacting to what she said was speculation in the media about provisional agreement reached on aspects of a final deal, such as a solution to the Arak reactor, and a growing sense of optimism in media reports that a deal would be reached.

“What we are working on is a package,” the US official stressed, calling the prospective final deal document the Comprehensive Plan of Action. “Not a checklist. Each individual piece affects the overall outcome. …The only percentage that matters is 100%.”

“One can see how one can get to an agreement by July 20,” but whether we can “get to it is another matter,” the US official said. “This is very tough…. There are points of agreement, there are significant gaps. It is not that there is no solution. There are. Getting to them is another matter.”

The US official’s less upbeat tone on prospects for reaching a final nuclear deal is both meant to manage expectations as the hard bargaining really begins, and because serious differences remain in the two sides’ positions, said Ali Vaez, senior Iran researcher at the International Crisis Group, and lead author of a major new report on solving the Iran nuclear issue, released last week.

“I have the impression that major sticking points remain,” Vaez told Al-Monitor in Vienna Tuesday. “There has been some progress, but still some contentious sticking points remain to be resolved and without them, there will be no agreement.”

Likening the closing weeks of the negotiations to a poker game, Vaez suggested that the negotiating atmosphere is likely “to get worse before it gets better.” It could “get to the point of almost breakdown before both sides reveal their real bottom line.”

This, the fourth round of final deal talks, kicked off Tuesday night with a dinner between Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and their top aides at the office of the Iran mission to the UN in Vienna. The full meeting begins Wednesday with a plenary meeting involving political directors from the P5+1 and Iran, chaired by Ashton and Zarif at the UN. It’s expected to continue at least through Friday.

Zarif, arriving in Vienna Tuesday, told Iranian media he expected at least three more rounds of political director talks before July 20, but those dates have not yet been announced.

The parties are “quite focused on the July 20 date” when the six month interim deal, known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), expires, the US diplomat said. “We expect to negotiate every moment ’til then.”

(Photo: Reuters.)

Iran FM Zarif, meeting Kerry, says not authorized to discuss Syria


Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference for just over an hour Sunday.

They discussed upcoming comprehensive Iran nuclear negotiations set to get underway in Vienna this month, and the case of Americans detained or missing in Iran.

But notably, when Kerry raised the issue of Syria, Zarif indicated that he was not authorized to discuss it, a U.S. official told Al-Monitor.

“Secretary Kerry raised his concerns about the delay in moving chemical weapons to the port in Latakia, and the humanitarian situation on the ground specifically in the besieged areas,” a senior US official told Al-Monitor Sunday. “He also urged Iran to show a willingness to play a constructive role in bringing an end to the conflict.”

“Foreign Minister Zarif made clear that he did not have the authority to discuss Syria and the focus of the meeting was on the nuclear negotiations,” the U.S. official said.

It was apparently the first time the State Department has acknowledged that Kerry has tried to raise the issue of Syria directly with the Iranians–and that it was the Iranian envoy who rebuffed it.

Kerry and Zarif, who met for just over an hour, “discussed the upcoming negotiations with the P5+1 and the EU on a comprehensive agreement that will begin in Vienna” later this month, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a readout of the meeting.

Kerry “reiterated the importance of both sides negotiating in good faith and Iran abiding by its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action,” Psaki said.  “He also made clear that the United States will continue to enforce existing sanctions.”

Kerry also brought up the case of US citizens detained or believed missing in Iran, Robert Levinson, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini, and cooperation to try to secure their release, Psaki said.

Six world powers and Iran will launch the first round of negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear accord in Vienna on February 18th, the European Union and Iran announced last week.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, speaking to the Wall Street Journal Sunday, said everyone expects the talks on a final deal would be very difficult, and that the parties would take the time “necessary to get this to be the right agreement.” She also said she has accepted an invitation to travel to Iran sometime after the Vienna round of nuclear talks.

Also in Munich, Israeli officials remained in the room during Zarif’s speech to the Munich Security Conference Sunday. (The photo at the right shows Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Bogie Ya’alon in the front row, last seat, watching Zarif’s address to the Munich Security Conference Sunday.)

But Israel’s intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz had harsh words for Kerry, who got asked in the Q/A after his address to the conference Saturday about the campaign to boycott goods and divest from Israel’s settlements. The boycotts/divestment solidarity (BDS) campaign has recently received global attention because of actress Scarlett Johansson’s dismissal as a special ambassador from Oxfam International because of her association with the SodaStream company, which has a factory in the West Bank settlement of Maale Adunim. “Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a gun to its head,” Steinitz reportedly complained to reporters about Kerry’s comments.

The State Department pushed back forcefully against Steinitz’s attack, saying it was misleading to suggest that Kerry supported the boycott campaign or had threatened Israel with it.

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P5+1 turns focus to implementing Iran nuclear deal

Western diplomats expressed confidence about Iran sticking to the terms of an interim nuclear accord signed in Geneva last month as they met to discuss implementing the agreement and the process going forward for negotiating an end state deal.

The diplomatic consultations come ahead of a technical meeting between diplomats from Iran and six world powers in Vienna next week that will focus on implementing the November 24th accord.

“I think it will hold, because it’s in Iran’s interest for it to hold,” Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the PBS News Hour Wednesday (Dec. 4). “Iran is looking for some economic relief. There’s very little in this agreement, but it is the first step to a comprehensive agreement which will give them the economic relief they are looking for.”

“We are discussing 6 or 7 parameters that have to be crystallized into the common position of the P5+1,” a senior western official, speaking not for attribution, said Thursday, of the diplomatic consultations among the six world powers. The current priority is “implementation of the Nov. 24 agreement and deciding on a process.”

In terms of implementing the Phase 1 deal, “there are obvious facts to be confirmed by the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA – stopping 20 percent, converting half the stockpile… enhanced monitoring,” the senior western official said.

Secretary of State John Kerry and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton discussed that process for implementing the Iran deal when they met in Brussels earlier this week. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Under Secretary Sherman were scheduled to meet with French political director Jacques Audibert  on Thursday, the State Department schedule indicated. The British non-resident charge to Iran Ajay Sharma, until recently the UK’s deputy political director, was also in Washington for consultations Thursday, after traveling to Iran earlier this week, diplomatic sources said.

Burns has been leading a bilateral channel with Iran that gained momentum after the August inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani,  Al-Monitor first reported last month (November 24). Sherman leads the US negotiations between the P5+1 and  Iran. The bilateral discussions between Iran and the United States have focused almost exclusively on the nuclear issue and fed back into the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, US officials stressed, though the issue of Americans held in Iran has also been raised.

“All of the issues that arose in that private bilateral conversation also arose in the P5+1,” Sherman told PBS. “And I think very effectively the P5+1 used our bilateral channel and other bilateral discussions that were going on with other partners to get to this agreement.”

European Union foreign ministers are scheduled to meet on December 16 to discuss possibly suspending some EU sanctions against Iran for a period of six months as part of the first phase agreement reached in Geneva on November 24th.

The US administration has urged Congress to hold off on passing new sanctions on Iran–even if the sanctions would not come into effect until after six months if an end state deal is not reached. Continue reading

West praises ‘useful, detailed’ Iran nuclear proposal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EU, Iran deputy nuclear negotiators meet in Turkey

Deputy nuclear negotiators for Iran and the P5+1 have wrapped up a meeting in Istanbul.

Helga Schmid, the EU deputy foreign policy chief, and her Iranian counterpart, Dr. Ali Bagheri, met to try to see if there’s a way to narrow vast differences that have emerged in three rounds of nuclear talks. The gaps were so wide at the last round of nuclear talks in Moscow last month that negotiators decided to schedule three sets of lower profile meetings. Schmid and Bagheri’s discussions Tuesday followed a July 3rd technical meeting between nuclear experts. Chief negotiators for the EU and Iran are next due to confer, to see if there’s sufficient basis for progress to reconvene again at the senior political level.

“The meeting between Helga Schmid and Dr Bagheri has finished,” EU spokesman Michael Mann said. “As agreed in Moscow, the next stage will be a contact between” EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iran’s chief nuclear  negotiator Dr. Saeed Jalili.

EU diplomats declined to provide more details on the meeting Tuesday.

The P5+1 has asked Iran to stop its 20% enrichment, ship out its 20% stockpile, and close the fortified Fordo enrichment site as a first-step confidence-building measure. Iran has indicated it is willing to discuss halting its 20% enrichment, but wants recognition of its right to enrich for energy purposes and more relief from draconian new sanctions than the international proposal  provides.