Enrichment capacity seen as key hurdle to Iran deal

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Washington, DC__ Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday offered upbeat reassurances about prospects for reaching a nuclear deal, even as negotiators from Iran and six world powers reported no progress from “sticker shock” nuclear talks in Vienna last week, and urged each other to return to the table next time with more “realism.”

With the “positive trend of talks, we are on threshold of solving [the] nuclear issue,” Rouhani said in China Wednesday.

Despite the intentions of both sides, Iran and world powers will not be able to reach a final nuclear accord unless Iran lowers its expectations for the size of its enrichment program, non-proliferation experts in consultation with the parties warned.

“I think Iran genuinely wants a deal,” former State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor Robert Einhorn told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“But it may not yet realize that it can’t get one unless it is prepared to lower its sights on the enrichment capacity it will be allowed to have under an agreement,” Einhorn said.

“If a deal is to happen, Iran must make the strategic decision to forego a near-term breakout capability in the form of a sizable enrichment program,” Jofi Joseph, a former White House Iran non-proliferation advisor, said Wednesday. “If it is prepared to do so, a deal can come together quickly this summer. If not, then an impasse will occur.”

Iran was frustrated by the P5+1 proposal in Vienna for a decade or more time-frame for phased sanctions relief, and wants sanctions relief in a deal to be more front-loaded for steps it’s also willing to take on the front end.

The P5+1 “say that after the agreement, we have to prove our goodwill. They will then remove sanctions one by one,” over a period of ten years, Seyed Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse reported Wednesday.

Iran also rejects that its ballistic missile program should be a subject for discussion with the P5+1, Iran’s negotiators have repeatedly said.

The largest gap that has Iran deal watchers concerned, however, is between the expectations of Iran and the West over the size of Iran’s enrichment program.

“What matters most is whether the two sides can agree on a much more limited uranium enrichment program for near term,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Al-Monitor.

“Only if Iran meets its obligations, builds confidence its program not being used for military purposes, and Iran demonstrates it has legitimate nuclear fuel needs will the international community agree to relaxing those constraints,” Kimball said.

“The brinkmanship will continue until the last minute,” one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “My problem is the incompatibility of the two sides’ end objectives…maintaining nuclear capability vs. rolling it back.”

Sources suggest the Iranians would like to initially maintain the number of centrifuges they are currently operating under the six month interim deal–about 9,000 IR-1s – to be the starting amount in the near term of a final deal, that would be allowed to increase after some duration. At the end of an as yet to be agreed period in which it would agree to restrictions and extensive inspections, monitoring and safeguards, Iran wants to have its status as a member of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) normalized, so that it could in theory have no restrictions on the size of its enrichment program.

“I understand that Iran has indicated willingness to consider short term constraints on the size of its enrichment program, such as freezing at the current level of 9,000 operating IR-1s for a few years before gradually expanding to an industrial scale of 50,000 or more IR-1 centrifuge machines,” former Obama White House non-proliferation advisor Gary Samore said in a speech posted at the Harvard Belfer Center website this week.

Meantime, Congressional sources and Israeli officials would find a deal under which Iran operated 3,000 IR-1 centrifuges while maintaining a small stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium, allowing a one year “breakout” period, “politically defensible,” Samore wrote.

Getting Iran to agree to restrict the size of its enrichment program in the near and medium term is probably more important than how many centrifuges it says it wants after a decade or two, some non-proliferation experts said.

“I actually think if you could get to a near term agreement, that would make us feel comfortable over the next ten years, it would take care of itself,” Greg Thielmann, a former US intelligence analyst with the Arms Control Association, said Tuesday.

Sources expect Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to meet as early as this weekend to discuss how to bridge wide gaps in positions, ahead of the next round of talks in Vienna June 16th. US and Iranian sources did not immediately respond if U.S. officials would participate in the meeting or might meet separately.

(Photo of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attending a banquet in Vienna May 14 2014 by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.)

Interpol IDs Iranians on MH370, terror link not suspected


Two Iranian nationals identified Tuesday as having used stolen European passports to board missing Malaysia Air flight 370 are not suspected of links to terrorist groups, Interpol said Tuesday, in releasing their photos.

“The more information we get, the more we are inclined to conclude it is not a terrorist incident,” Interpol Secretary-General Ron Noble said Tuesday.

Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, and Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29, arrived in Malaysia from Iran on February 28 on their Iranian passports. They checked into flight MH370 in Kuala Lumpur Saturday (March 8), using European passports reported stolen by their owners in Thailand in 2012 and 2013.

Pouri Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, was booked through Beijing onto Amsterdam then Frankfurt, where his mother resides and was waiting for him. The mother contacted authorities when he did not arrive, Malaysia’s police chief told reporters near Kuala Lumpur Tuesday.

Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza was also booked from Kuala Lumpur through Beijing to Amsterdam, and then onto Copenhagen, reports said.

Iran on Tuesday said it has offered to cooperate with the investigation into the missing Malaysia Air flight and reports that Iranian nationals were passengers on it.

Iran is “following up on reports regarding the possibility of two Iranian passengers aboard the plane,” Iran Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Tuesday, Agence France Press reported.

“We are offering our cooperation to obtain more information” and would provide “any information on the Iranians and their status as soon as it is available,” she said.

On Monday, a contact of the two Iranian men spoke to BBC Persia and sent a note to CNN with a photo of the two men saying they were ordinary passengers, who were using the stolen European passports to try to get to Europe, and saying that he had been cooperating with Malaysia Air.

“I have some information about the 2 people who was in MH370 with stolen passport,” the Iranians’ contact, using the handle mamadDC, posted on CNN’s website from Kuala Lumpur Monday. CNN later removed the post, but Al-Monitor saved it and the accompanying photo, which matched that of the two Iranians later released by Interpol.

“On[e] of them was my high school friend,” he said. “And I already give the information to the Malaysian airline…I thought maybe my information can help to the world. and i put the last picture of them.”


The second man on the left is Pouria [Nour Mohammad Mehrdad], who used the stolen Austrian passport, their contact wrote. The man on the far right, [Delavar Seyed Mohammad] Reza, used the stolen Italian passport.

The men identified in the photo provided by their friend to media Monday look to be the same as those in photos taken from CCTV released by Interpol on Tuesday. Continue reading

Tom Donilon to step down, Susan Rice to succeed as NSA

President Obama's National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will step down, to be succeeded by UN envoy Susan Rice, the White House announced Wednesday. President Obama will nominate his former White House advisor and humanitarian expert Samantha Power to be the next US envoy to the United Nations.

The announcement comes in advance of President Obama’s first meeting with China’s President Xi, in California later this week. Donilon has made the US “rebalance” to Asia a focus of his tenure as Obama’s top national security advisor, and traveled to China late last month to discuss the agenda.

The Back Channel reported May 3rd that Donilon was expected to step down this summer, several months earlier than previous reports had suggested. Among his considerations, associates said, was that he had been doing this for over four long years, and family medical issues. (Sources say that Donilon’s wife Catherine Russell, former chief of staff to the Vice President’s wife Jill Biden, is recovering from a medical issue. Obama earlier this spring nominated her to be his next ambassador at large for global women’s issues.)

White House associates say Rice and Power, like Donilon, are trusted Obama advisors who have been in his inner circle of national security confidants going back to his 2008 presidential campaign. As such, sources anticipated a relatively smooth transition and a good deal of continuity on major foreign policy issues.

“I think the interesting thing about this transition is it’s clearly been planned for a long time,” former White House spokesperson Tommy Vietor told the Back Channel Wednesday. “It’s not a shake up. It’s a transition in which Susan and Sam can hit the ground running because they have been doing it for four years.”

“The key to a successful national security adviser is having the President's trust,” former Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told the Back Channel Wednesday. “That is what made Donilon such a power player and the same will be true of Rice, who has long been close to Obama.”

It remains to be seen if the elevation of Power to the UN and Rice's move to the White House will shift the Obama administration's thinking towards greater Syria intervention, given their reported roles inside the Obama inter-agency debate advocating for NATO intervention in Libya, and Power’s expertise in humanitarian intervention and as the author of a Pulitzer Prize winning book on genocide.

“Power and Rice are strong and principled advocates of atrocity prevention, but are not the irresponsible liberal interventionists often portrayed,” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University who advised the Obama 2008 campaign on foreign policy said Wednesday. “They are close to President Obama on foreign policy and will face the same limits and obstacles constraining the current policy on Syria. I wouldn't expect them to rapidly push for a military intervention which the administration views as unlikely to succeed.”

“My sense is, everyone in the government, including Susan and Sam, is going to keep pushing for a better outcome in Syria,” Vietor said. “No one is satisfied with the outcome on the ground.”

“It’s wrong to assume that means military intervention,” he added. “We have a lot of considerations to work through. What you have got are people who have been in the government who understand the role that US diplomatic leverage and military power plays, and how that can often be the single most important thing we’ve got. So it’s certainly a significant set of changes. But it remains to be seen what it leads to in Syria.”

Donilon had been looking for the right time to announce his departure, to make the transition as smooth as possible, aides said. “Tom been thinking about this for a long time,” Vietor said. Rice and Donilon will work together over the next few weeks to manage the transition. Donilon is expected to depart mid-July.

While the administration's re-balance to Asia as well as the US withdrawal from Iraq were top Donilon policy priorities, his imprint as a manager of the policy process is perhaps more significant. Donilon was deeply involved in the day to day running of the inter-agency process, some say with a heavy hand, as well as discipline. Aides say he should be credited with running a national security process in which disparate views were heard and fought over internally, but where notably few high-level cabinet fights erupted publicly.

“Tom Donilon has been an outstanding national security adviser. As an inside manager of the President's national security policy process, Tom succeeded in leading a collaborative and insightful process in which all players – from top to bottom – worked together rather than against each other,” Ivo Daalder, outgoing US ambassador to NATO and a friend of Donilon, said.

“It's a feat very few of his predecessors were able to accomplish,” continued Daalder, who is co-author of one of the defintive studies on the role of the national security advisor, In the Shadow of the Oval Office. “He truly managed a 'no drama' process – one that produced very effective advice for the President and ensured smooth implementation of the President's decisions.” Continue reading

Associates say National Security Advisor Tom Donilon may leave this summer

Several associates tell the Back Channel they believe that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is planning to leave this summer—several months earlier than previous reports had suggested, and even as the White House said Donilon has no plans to depart.

On the one hand he doesn’t seem to want to leave, but he’s been doing this five long years, one associate, speaking not for attribution, said Friday.

Noting several of Donilon’s recent and upcoming foreign trips and high-profile speeches on Asia and energy, the White House said Donilon’s calendar remains booked into June, including with a late May trip to China.

“Tom has no plans to depart,” NSS spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said by email late Friday. “As you’ve probably seen, he’s fully engaged in managing our national security agenda, from his recent trip to Moscow and major address on global energy, to planning for a trip to China in late May and more upcoming speaking events.”

President Obama recently nominated Donilon’s wife Catherine M. Russell, chief of staff to Jill Biden, to be the next US Ambassador at large for Global Women’s Issues. Some associates suggested a family health issue may be a factor in Donilon’s thinking on how long to stay, but declined to elaborate. The couple have high school age children.

US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is expected to succeed Donilon as National Security Advisor.

It’s not clear who will be nominated to succeed Rice at the UN—the name the Back Channel has consistently heard is Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, but one official wasn’t certain that Burns wanted to stay. Secretary of State John Kerry would also like to keep Burns, another official said, noting there are too many vacant seats at State for another hole.

Neither Burns, nor Donilon, nor Rice’s office, responded to queries Friday.

While the transition of such a central player in Obama’s national security team as Donilon–-and the resulting shuffle—on the nearer term horizon could seem like one explanation for why several other anticipated senior foreign policy appointments have not yet been announced, foreign policy sources said they did not believe that to be a key factor.

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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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Iran offers journalists rare tour of former US embassy

Iran recently invited some reporters to visit the former US embassy grounds in Tehran, ostensibly to promote new tours being offered of former front line sites in the Iran-Iraq war.

“The other day I was invited in the former US embassy in Tehran, Iran,” Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times’ Iran correspondent, wrote on Twitter Monday, in the first of several posts showing his photos of the visit. The occasion was a press conference by a Baseej military commander on tours being offered of former fronts in the eight year war. The organizing committee for the tours now has its headquarters on the former US embassy grounds, Edbrink explained.

But to some the tours’ timing may suggest it’s part of an Iranian response to the recent Hollywood film “Argo,” which several Iranian officials have complained is insulting to Iran, and unfairly depicted Iran’s 1979 seizure of hostages from the US embassy, which led to the over thirty year breach in US-Iranian relations. The Baseej commander, for instance, gave his press conference promoting the new tours in the former US Ambassador’s office.

China’s Xinhua news agency on Monday also published several photos of the former US embassy, which it said were taken by an Iranian journalist for the agency on March 10th:

“An Iranian Journalist visits inside the former U.S. embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran, March 10, 2013,” Xinhua said in a caption:

“Pictures and equipment of Americans are seen inside the former U.S. embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran, March 10, 2013,” the caption to the photograph, below, published by Xinhua said.

The New York Times’ Erdbrink posted his photo, below, of a Baseej commander giving “a press conference on tours to the former [Iran/Iraq] war in the former US Ambassador’s office,” he wrote:

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Iran, world powers agree to new nuclear talks in Istanbul, Almaty

Almaty, Kazakhstan__ Negotiators from Iran and six world powers announced they would hold two more meetings over the next month to discuss a new international proposal aimed at curbing Iran's 20% enrichment and nuclear breakout capacity, in exchange for some sanctions relief. The announcement came at the conclusion of two days of talks here that have seemingly turned out to be among the most positive of the past year, though both sides say they still have some work to do to narrow differences.

The parties agreed to hold an experts meeting in Istanbul on March 18, followed by a political directors meeting, again in Almaty, Kazakhstan on April 5-6, negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran announced in a joint statement at the conclusion of talks Wednesday.

Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili described the Almaty meeting as “positive,” while his American and European counterparts characterized it, more cautiously, as “useful,” stressing the imperative is results, not atmospherics.

“I would say it was a useful meeting,” a senior US official told journalists Wednesday. “The day we have concrete results, I will use a different adjective.”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, speaking at the conclusion of talks Wednesday, said she welcomed if the Iranian side “are looking positively at proposals we put forward.” But, she added, “I believe in looking at what the results are.”

The centerpiece of the two-day meeting was a presentation Tuesday by Ashton of a revised international proposal focused on curbing Iran's 20% enrichment, suspending operations at the fortified Fordow enrichment facility, and increasing nuclear safeguards, transparency and IAEA inspections that would prevent a rapid Iranian breakout capability, the US diplomat said.

The updated offer somewhat eases demands to entirely “stop, shut and ship” its 20% stockpile made in a proposal put forward in Baghdad last May.

Unlike the past proposal, the updated one would allow Iran to keep a sufficient amount of its 20% enriched fuel to fuel a research reactor that produces isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients, the US diplomat said.

The revised proposal also calls for “suspension of enrichment” at Fordo–rather than shuttering the fortified facility, built into a mountain in Qom– and would “constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there,” the American official said. It also calls for enhanced IAEA monitoring measures “to promote greater transparency…and provide early warning” of any attempted breakout effort, the official said.

In exchange, the proposal offers an easing of some sanctions. The US official said the proposed sanctions relief at this stage does not involve oil or financial sanctions, but other US and European Union imposed sanctions, which the official declined to specify. It would also offer to not impose new UN Security Council or European Union proliferation sanctions, as the previous offer also had. “We never regarded sanctions as an end in themselves,” the American official said.
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The US official declined to say whether the updated proposal asks Iran to halt installation of more advanced centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility, that could considerably speed up Iran's enrichment capacity.

Jalili offered rare praise for the international proposal, acknowledging it demonstrated a clear effort to respond to Iranian concerns. “We believe this is a…turning point,” he said through at a translator at a press conference Wednesday. The six parties “have moved closer to our proposal.”

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Source: New P5+1 proposal offers Iran relief on gold, petrochemical sanctions

Almaty, Kazakhstan__A source close to the talks tells Al Monitor that the updated P5+1 proposal to be formally presented to Iran Tuesday in Kazakhstan includes some sanctions relief on the gold trade, petrochemical industry, and some small-scale banking sanctions. The source, speaking not for attribution Tuesday, said the package had originally been obtained from a permanent member of the UN Security Council late Monday, but declined to say which one.

The package makes some similar requests of Iran– to shut Fordo, stop its 20% enrichment and ship out its 20% stockpile–as the past P5+1 proposal presented to Iran last year in Baghdad, the source indicated. He did not immediately indicate what further requests of Iran were included in the revised proposal.

Iranian reaction so far was muted, but suggested that Iran thought the offer was still not sufficiently balanced between demands made of it and relief being offered.

Separately, Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri met with China’s political director in Almaty Tuesday morning.

Plenary talks between the six powers that comprise the P5+1—the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China—and Iran are due to get underway at 1:30pm local time Tuesday.

Western diplomats said Monday they would present a modified proposal that includes some sanctions relief. They also said they would like to get agreement for a follow-on technical meeting with Iran to further discuss the new proposal.

“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,” a senior US official told journalists in Almaty Monday.

“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,” the American official said.

(Photo: Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev (R) meets with Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Almaty February 25, 2013. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov.)

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Ahead of new Iran nuclear talks, six powers debate updating package


Diplomats, stressing no date or location has yet been set, tentatively expect six world powers to hold a new round of nuclear talks with Iran in January.

Part of the hold-up is jammed-up calendars—NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels this week, several dozen countries’ top diplomats are due to meet in Morocco on Syria next week (December 12); the IAEA is due to visit Iran next week (December 13).

But a larger reason for the delay and current sense of uncertainty on when nuclear talks will resume is that the six powers that make up the so-called “P5+1” have still not agreed amongst themselves whether and how to refresh the package presented to Iran at the next meeting, diplomats speaking not for attribution told Al-Monitor in interviews in recent days.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alluded to intense consultations on the matter last week.

“We are deeply engaged in consultations right now with our P-5+1 colleagues, looking to put together a presentation for the Iranians at the next meeting that does make it clear we’re running out of time, we’ve got to get serious, here are issues we are willing to discuss with you, but we expect reciprocity,” Clinton said at the Saban Forum of US and Israeli diplomats and Middle East experts last week (November 30th).

Britain’s political director Mark Sedwill and some of his team were in Washington last week for consultations with their American counterparts about that and other matters.

Some diplomatic sources thought that the United States and EU3—the UK, France and Germany–were expecting to reach consensus on the matter among themselves by the end of last week, but there were signs that the issue was still being discussed among the six as of Tuesday.

Clinton repeatedly stressed that the United States believes a bilateral conversation between the Americans and Iranians could help advance prospects for a nuclear deal.

“We have, from the very beginning, made it clear to the Iranians we are open to a bilateral discussion,” Clinton, speaking to the same Saban Forum, continued. “So far there has not yet been any meeting of the minds on that. But we remain open. … But we understand that it may take pushing through that obstacle to really get them fully responsive to whatever the P-5+1 offer might be.”

Al-Monitor has previously reported that the Americans were inclined to urge expanding the offer to “more for more”—while the Europeans had not reached consensus on that as of the meeting of P5+1 political directors held in Brussels on November 21st.

The “more for more” offer, as one US source explained it to Al-Monitor last month, would envision updating the “stop, ship, and shut” offer regarding 20% uranium enrichment to get more verifiable limits on the rest of Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for greater international concessions, including some form of sanctions relief.

“’Refreshing the package’ is the language being used,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor in an interview last week (November 3oth). “Consultations are continuing on how to refresh it.”

“But I am not impressed with” the diplomatic preparations to date, Clawson said. “The conversations are extremely timid.” The argument that there are only a “few windows” before Christmas to hold a meeting struck him as implausible, he said.

However, some diplomatic sources suggested international negotiators may be hoping to use the delay and distractions of the season to hold a couple quiet, technical meetings with the Iranians before the next round of high-level political talks. Such technical talks, held with minimal publicity, could be a way to try to narrow differences ahead of getting to the political directors’ meetings with Iran, where little progress to date has been made.

American and Iranian nuclear experts had “several” conversations at P5+1 “technical” meetings with Iran held in Istanbul July 3rd, diplomats told Al-Monitor, leaving unclear if subsequent conversations or contacts amongst those involved occurred after that date.

A spokesperson told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he had no information about any further contacts between the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton or her deputy Helga Schmid and Tehran.

Meantime, several sources told Al-Monitor they expected the US Iran team to undergo some changes as national security appointments shake out in Obama’s second term. Some sources thought chief US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman, the Undersecretary of State for Policy, would likely leave when Clinton’s successor gets her or his team in place. Several sources also said State Department arms control envoy Robert J. Einhorn is likely to depart, for a chair waiting for him at the Brookings Institution. White House WMD czar Gary Samore may stay on for now, administration sources suggested.

Despite possible changes in the US Iran negotiating team, “the administration is determined that the transition will not be a problem in moving forward,” Clawson said.

(Photo: Political directors from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China met in Brussels November 21st, at a meeting on resuming Iran nuclear talks hosted by European Union foreign policy chief and chief international negotiator Catherine Ashton. Photo posted by the European External Action Service.)

Friday links: Abbas not seeking right of return, US Syria plan faces resistance