Syria envoy Robert Ford retires, Rubenstein to be named successor

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US Syria envoy Robert Ford retired on Friday after 30 years distinguished service, the State Department announced Friday.

Ford’s “extraordinary leadership has guided our response to one of the most formidable foreign policy challenges in the region,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists Friday.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Lawrence Silverman will temporarily serve as his replacement until a permanent successor is named, Psaki said.

US officials tell Al-Monitor that US diplomat Daniel Rubenstein will be named as Ford’s permanent successor working with the Syrian opposition. Rubenstein, described by colleagues as an “outstanding Arabist,” currently serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the State Department Intelligence and Research bureau (INR).

Rubenstein previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Jordan (2005-2008), as the US Consul General  in Jerusalem (2009-2012), and as chief of the Civilian Observer Unit in the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, Egypt. Rubenstein, who is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and Portuguese, also served in earlier postings in Damascus, Tunis, Tel Aviv, and Brasilia. He couldn’t immediately be reached Saturday for comment.

Kaine: Israel stance ‘no, no, no’ on Iran enrichment

Israel’s stance on acceptable terms for a final Iran nuclear deal remains as uncompromising as that which divided Washington and Jerusalem on the merits of an interim nuclear deal last fall, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) said Monday following a trip last week to the Middle East.

“Their position is no, no, no: No enrichment, no centrifuges, no weaponization program,” Kaine, referring to Israeli leaders, said in answer to a question on a conference call briefing with journalists Monday on his trip last week to Israel, Ramallah, Lebanon and Egypt.

Netanyahu, in a meeting with Senators Kaine and Angus King (Independent-Maine) in Israel last week, “said nothing about the pending legislation,” Kaine said, referring to stalled Iran sanctions legislation co-sponsored  by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Ron Kirk (R-Illinois). “He expressed what he has [previously] expressed. He has not backed away one iota [from his position] that the interim deal is a bad idea in his view. But he acknowledged…that the deal is done.”

Now the Israeli leader is turning his focus to how to “structure the final deal …so that it accomplishes what needs to be accomplished, and what would such a deal look like,” Kaine said, adding that Netanyahu did not refer to specific draft U.S. legislation on the matter. “He’s aware that if we can’t find an acceptable deal, it’s not hard to get Congress to pass more sanctions.”

When Netanyahu comes to Washington next week to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference and to meet with President Obama, “I suspect that rather than a speech that three quarter deals with” the six month Join Plan of Action that went into effect last  month, he will spend “a lot of time on what should be the components of a final deal” and what “assurances will be needed.”

Asked if the Israeli leader had shown any signs of softening his maximalist positions from last fall that an acceptable Iran nuclear deal could allow no centrifuges or domestic Iranian enrichment, Kaine said no.

“I understand and they [the Israelis] understand that this is a negotiation,” Kaine said. “At the end of the day, we have the same goal of a diplomatic solution, [of Iran] without a nuclear weapon and easy ability to produce a nuclear weapon. Exactly how to define that question of what is acceptable in terms of nuclear research and what is unacceptable, that gets too close to a weapon, there are some gray areas.”

“The US and Israeli perspectives may be a little different,” Kaine continued. “That demands communication.”

“I would like there to be zero enrichment, I would like there to be no facilities, I would like there not to be an indigenous program,” lead US Iran negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy  Sherman told journalists in Israel over the weekend. “I think I would like many things in life. But that does not mean I will always get them, and that is not necessarily the only path to ensuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon and that the international community can have confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its program.”

Kaine also said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders expressed gratitude for Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to advance a framework for an Israel-Palestine two state solution, but that both expressed doubts the other side was willing to make the necessary compromises and concessions for it to succeed.

In Lebanon, he said Lebanese leaders told him and King that they appreciated US financial support for humanitarian efforts to support the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the country, but that what was needed is to improve conditions inside Syria to slow the refugee exodus and move to end the conflict. He and King were preparing to leave a briefing at the US embassy in Beirut last week when a suicide blast went off some five miles south at an Iranian cultural center, killing several people–the latest sign of sectarian spillover violence from Syria’s civil war that threatens to destabilize its neighbors.

Kaine, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Near East and South Asia subcommittee, plans to hold a subcommittee hearing on Lebanon on Tuesday.

Photo: Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), right, meets in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Sen. Angus King (I-Me.), via Washington Jewish Week.

World powers, Iran agree on roadmap for ‘marathon’ nuclear talks

Vienna_ The first round of comprehensive Iran nuclear deal negotiations concluded here Thursday with agreement on all the issues that need to be addressed and a timetable of meetings over the next four months to try to do so.

“We are at the beginning of a very difficult, complex process,” a senior U.S. official said Thursday. “It’s going to be both a marathon and a sprint….We have a long distance to cover in a short period of time.”

“We have had three very productive days during which we have identified all of the issues we need to address in reaching a comprehensive and final agreement,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced at a brief joint press conference with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Thursday morning.

“There is a lot to do,” Ashton said, in a statement that Zarif later gave in Persian. “It won’t be easy but we have made a good start.”

Political directors from six world powers as well as Zarif and Ashton and their teams will reconvene for the next meeting in Vienna on March 17th. That meeting will be preceded by technical experts consultations among the six powers and Iran, that seem like they will become almost ongoing throughout the next months as negotiators aim to advance a comprehensive accord.

“We all feel we made some progress,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in a briefing here after the meeting concluded Thursday. “We can’t predict all ahead. But we do now have a path forward for how these negotiations will proceed.”

The US official described the meetings as “constructive and useful,” and said they discussed “both process and substance.” They had produced a “framework for going forward,” she said, although one that is apparently not yet officially on paper. “We are trying to do so in as open and transparent” a manner as possible, the U.S. official said, but “it’s critical to leave space for everyone’s points of view to be heard and taken into account.”

Regarding Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif’s reported complaints about some recent US officials’ statements complicating his efforts to sell the negotiations at home, the U.S. official said the two sides had agreed to try to be thoughtful about what impact their statements to domestic audiences have in the other’s political space. Iranian hardliners have reacted negatively to Secretary of State John Kerry saying in a recent interview that “all options are on the table,” and to US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman telling a Senate committee this month that the comprehensive deal will address such issues as Iran’s ballistic missiles, which are mentioned in UN Security Council resolutions but are not strictly in the nuclear issue purview of the P5+1, according to the Iranians.

In turn, media coverage of Iran’s recent marking of the 35th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, for example, has shown Iranian protesters proclaiming ‘death to America,’ some carrying posters denigrating President Obama and Sherman, among other frequent statements that antagonize Israel and the United States.

“Everybody in the negotiations have domestic audiences and partners with points of view; they say things the other side won’t like,” the US official said. “That is going to happen. What we agreed to try to do is be thoughtful [about the impact] those statements have on the negotiation. And to the extent that we can, try to be thoughtful.”

Indeed, the U.S. official seemed to show a greater degree of sensitivity to widespread Iranian frustration at remaining international sanctions after the recent interim nuclear deal, by talking up for the first time the legitimacy of some business activities now allowed under the six month deal, including auto and petrochemical sales. And she noted that it would be a positive thing if Iranians seeking fuller sanctions relief realized a comprehensive Iranian nuclear deal could deliver that.

“If the message to Iran is, when Iran reaches a comprehensive agreement…there is a potential that sanctions would be removed, and therefore Iran would see a more normal business environment, so it’s important to negotiate a comprehensive agreement, that is a useful message,” the U.S. official said. “Sanctions are not an end in itself. We would like to lift them.”

“I think the Iranians see [the meeting] not too differently from what the Americans said publicly,” Reza Marashi, a former State Department official with the National Iranian American Council , told Al-Monitor Thursday in Vienna. “There are a lot of very difficult isues that need to be addressed, and which will require some creative thinking in order to address them.” But negotiators from both sides have gained confidence from their ability to get the interim nuclear deal last fall, despite moments of doubt.

“It is fair to say that this is a very difficult process and it’s fair for one to be skeptical, but it’s unfair to stop the sentence there,” Marashi cited what one senior Iranian negotiator told him Thursday. “To finish the sentence, one must say that everything that has happened up to this point has been unprecedented. We should use that momentum going forward to tackle the very difficult challenges ahead. We should believe that this process can succeed. Otherwise, what’s the point.”

(Photo of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a press conference at the conclusion of comprehensive nuclear deal talks in Vienna February 20, 2014, by Shargh.)

Diplomats: Agenda, timetable agreed for Iran final deal talks

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Vienna__ Diplomats from Iran and six world powers said Wednesday they had agreed on an agenda of issues and a timetable of meetings to proceed in negotiating a comprehensive Iran nuclear accord.

The framework agenda includes the issues that will need to be addressed and a timetable for trying to reach an agreement in six months, one diplomat from the P5+1, speaking not for attribution, described here Wednesday.

“We have [a] timetable of meetings and identification of issues,” a Western official at the talks, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor late Wednesday..

A framework agreement has been reached, an Iranian negotiator affirmed to Al- Monitor late Wednesday evening just after talks broke for the night. The Islamic Republic News Agency, citing Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, reported late Wednesday that a framework agreement had been reached, and a next round of talks would be held in Vienna in mid to late March.

“This round of talks has been productive and useful,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf, in Vienna, told journalists on a State Department press conference call Wednesday. “We do think we have made some progress in the past two days.”

Talks, which began on Tuesday, are expected to wrap up on Thursday midday. In part, the cut off time seemed influenced by the fact that lead international negotiator, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, summoned EU foreign ministers to Brussels for an emergency meeting on the Ukraine crisis Thursday at 2pm.

Iranian officials have also said the talks are going well. But like their P5+1 counterparts, they have said little to the press since talks got underway here Tuesday.

“it’s not finished yet, but overall it’s positive,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Wednesday evening as he departed the negotiations venue. He said he didn’t know if there would be anything on paper, but thought there would be a framework completed by Thursday.

The negotiations over the structure, sequence and organization of the final deal talks require heavy lifting on the front end in part to keep everybody on board. Apparently, provisional details were not worked out in advance through bilateral channels in order to avoid any surprises, said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group. But the complications of the forthcoming negotiations are likely going to require bilateral consultations once the framework is agreed, he said.

The issues “are not black and white,” Vaez told Al- Monitor Wednesday. “The scale of the problem is such that figuring out mechanisms for tackling them, without any doubt, is going to be extremely complicated.”

“A confidential channel [as a way] to break deadlock on the nuclear talks is now needed to start gaining understanding on issues of common interest [and] in order to consolidate this process,” Vaez said. “Start somewhere, start where [you] have common interests.”

But Iran to date has not authorized Iranian officials to negotiate with American counterparts on issues beyond the nuclear file, Vaez said.

“I think it’s been clear from day one that [Iranian Supreme Leader Aytaollah] Khamenei does not want to put all his cards on the table,” Vaez said. “From his standpoint, if Iran puts all the issues on the table, it will be interpreted by the United States as Iran being in a position of weakness….The general policy of the Iran government is not to engage on these [other] issues, lest the US have the impression Iran is seeking a broader compromise.”

Sen. Kaine says Russia can do more to resolve Syria crisis

Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat-Virginia), speaking to Al-Monitor Friday before he embarked on a Congressional delegation to the Middle East, said while there is cautious optimism about current U.S. efforts to advance a diplomatic resolution with Iran and an Israeli Palestinian peace agreement, U.S. Syria policy is not going well. And Russia is partly to blame, he said.

“I think Secretary [of State John] Kerry is pretty candid about it,” Kaine told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Feb. 14th, before traveling with Sen. Angus King (Independent, Maine) to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt. “Discussions, with all appropriate skepticism about Iran and [an] Israel Palestinian [peace agreement]– while elusive so far– those discussions are going well. Results will prove later if we can get there. But the Syrian situation is not going well. He’s been pretty candid about that. One of the main reasons is Russia continues to be an apologist for unacceptable behavior” by the Syrian regime.

“It’s one thing for Assad to do what he is doing to his people; we have known from the beginning what he is,” said Kaine, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 and became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East and South Asia subcommittee last summer. But Russia is a “country that pretends to aspire to world leadership, that it could get him to change his behavior when it wants to.”

The U.S. “was able to change Russia calculations with regard to Syria’s chemical weapons,” Kaine noted. But on stalled peace talks in Geneva it’s “not going well.“

What leverage, though, does the U.S. have to get Russia to put more pressure on the Syrian regime? After all, it took the prospect of imminent US military action last fall to get Russia to propose getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

Russia does “have pride,” the Virginia Democrat said. “They do want to be a global leader.” Last fall, it was both the prospect of U.S. military action in Syria, as well as the “global spotlight [on] Syria’s use of chemical weapons against women and kids,’ that affected Russia’s calculations on a chemical weapons deal, Kaine said. Continue reading

104 lawmakers urge Congress not interfere in Iran diplomacy


As talks on a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal are set to get underway in Vienna next week, over 100 members of Congress have written President Obama expressing support for robust diplomacy as the best way to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, and urging against any Congressional action that might interfere in sensitive negotiations.

The letter, signed by 100 Democratic House members and 4 Republicans, signals opposition to any form of Congressional resolution or legislation that could interfere with Iran diplomacy at this time, Rep. David Price (D-North Carolina) said in an interview Wednesday.

“We heard lots of talk about a possible resolution, partisan or bipartisan, that might state certain expectations for the ultimate outcome [of a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal] or otherwise interject itself into” the process, Price told Al-Monitor. “That did not seem to us a good idea.”

The letter expresses opposition to “any kind of Congressional action that might empower the hardliners on the other side, raise doubts about American intentions,…almost irrespective of the content of the resolution,” he said.

While “we remain wary of the Iranian regime…we believe that robust diplomacy remains our best possible strategic option,” 104 members of the US House of Representatives wrote in the Feb. 12 letter (.pdf).

“While difficult and uncertain, diplomacy represents our best hope to prevent nuclear weapons in Iran and ensure the safety of our families and others around the world,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat representing Austin, Texas, said in a press release. “Congress should not undermine diplomacy by giving the Iranian hardliners an excuse to scuttle the negotiations.”

Six world powers and Iran are due to hold the first round of comprehensive Iran nuclear deal talks in Vienna February 18-20.

Under a six month interim deal that went into effect Jan. 20, Iran has suspended 20% enrichment, provides increased access to its nuclear facilities for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), halted further installation of centrifuges and agreed not to operate advanced centrifuges, among other steps.

The IAEA also announced Feb. 9 that Iran has agreed for the first time to provide information on detonators that could shed light on the agency’s questions about past possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.

Price said he believed there has been a shift in Congress to be more supportive of the administration’s diplomatic efforts with Iran, despite skepticism about the regime, as demonstrated by the letter as well as by the recent decision not to bring an Iran sanctions bill to a vote in the Senate.

“I think the conclusion you might draw from some of the resolutions the House has passed and the debate on the [Senate] sanctions bill, is that we have corrected that impression” that Congress does not support diplomacy with Iran, or recognize the possibility of a shift under the new Iranian Hassan Rouhani administration, Rep. Price said.

“We find members very receptive to give diplomacy a chance,” Price said, “and explore whatever possibility [for a diplomatic resolution] that the new [Iranian] president has to offer.”

(Photo: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano (L) and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend the annual Munich Security Conference February 2, 2014. REUTERS/Lukas Barth.)

Bill Burns on nuclear diplomacy with Iran

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, in an interview (Jan. 14) with the Back Channel posted on the front page, spoke about leading the U.S. effort to open direct talks with Iran, expectations for the upcoming Geneva  II Syria peace talks, and a three decade career in US diplomacy:

With negotiations set to begin in February between Iran and the P5+1 on a comprehensive nuclear accord, Burns said President Barack Obama’s estimate of 50-50 odds of reaching an agreement is not bad, considering the context.

“The truth is, against the backdrop of the tortuous history of the relationship between the United States and Iran, that’s actually not a bad opportunity to be tested,” Burns said. “And I think it’s very important for us to test it.”

Full report and interview here. Earlier reports on the US-Iran channel: Burns led secret US back channel to Iran (Nov. 24, 2013);  Three Days in March: New details on how US, Iran opened direct talks (January 8, 2014).

Text: ‘Joint Plan of Action’ signed by Iran, P5+1 in Geneva

The US National Security Council released this text of the Joint Plan of Action on the nuclear agreement signed by six world powers and Iran in Geneva, November 24, 2013.

Full text below, as sent by the NSC below:

Joint Plan of Action

Preamble

The goal for these negotiations is to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful. Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons. This comprehensive solution would build on these initial measures and result in a final step for a period to be agreed upon and the resolution of concerns. This comprehensive solution would enable Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the NPT in conformity with its obligations therein. This comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the programme. This comprehensive solution would constitute an integrated whole where nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. This comprehensive solution would involve a reciprocal, step-bystep process, and would produce the comprehensive lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions, as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme.

There would be additional steps in between the initial measures and the final step, including, among other things, addressing the UN Security Council resolutions, with a view toward bringing to a satisfactory conclusion the UN Security Council’s consideration of this matter. The E3+3 and Iran will be responsible for conclusion and implementation of mutual near-term measures and the comprehensive solution in good faith. A Joint Commission of E3/EU+3 and Iran will be established to monitor the implementation of the near-term measures and address issues that may arise, with the IAEA responsible for verification of nuclear-related measures. The Joint Commission will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern. Continue reading

Exclusive: Burns led secret US back channel to Iran


Geneva, Switzerland __ Deputy Secretary of State William Burns has led a secret U.S. back channel to Iran going back to before the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, U.S. officials told Al-Monitor.

Burns was tapped to lead the US diplomatic effort to establish a bilateral channel with Iran, which gained momentum after the exchange of letters between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Rouhani in early August, US officials said. Led by Burns, the US’s second highest ranking diplomat and a former lead US Iran nuclear negotiator, the US effort to form direct contacts with Iran also includes two officials from the Obama White House: Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, and Puneet Talwar, the National Security Staff senior director for Iran, Iraq, and Persian Gulf affairs, US officials confirmed. Talwar’s role in back channel discussions with Iran was previously reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Following the exchange of letters between Obama and Rouhani in August, “Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts,” several times over the past few months, starting before the UN General Assembly opening session in September and in Geneva this month, a senior U.S. Administration official told Al-Monitor in an interview late Friday.

President Obama referred obliquely to the establishment of a direct U.S.-Iranian channel in a statement from the White House after negotiators for six world powers and Iran reached a nuclear deal here in Geneva tonight.

“We have pursued intensive diplomacy – bilaterally with the Iranians, and together with our P5+1 partners: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, as well as the European Union,” Obama said from the White House Saturday. “Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure – a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”

Al-Monitor learned that Burns was in Geneva during the second round of nuclear talks between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, UK, France, Russia, China) plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran held here November 7-9, and subsequently learned additional details about the bilateral channel, but agreed to hold the story at the administration’s request until the conclusion of the third round of nuclear talks that ended here in a breakthrough tonight.

Al-Monitor also learned that Burns is currently in Geneva during this round of Iran nuclear negotiations. Both times, he did not stay at the main diplomatic hotel, the Intercontinental, where many of the negotiations have taken place, but at another site, the US official said. Talwar has been seen by journalists at bus stops in the city and running towards the hotel at various times during the last three rounds of talks here; it could not be confirmed if he was relaying messages between the discussions taking place on site at the hotel, where the US, European and Iranian delegations stay, to Burns at another site.

US officials did not confirm by name which Iranian officials participated in the meetings with Burns. Al-Monitor has learned that they involved two of his diplomatic counterparts, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, the top deputies on the Iranian nuclear negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iranian officials did not respond to previous queries from Al-Monitor about alleged meetings with Burns.

“You know we have always said that we are open to bilateral discussions with Iran, in addition to the P5+1,” the senior US administration official told al-Monitor in an interview. “But this was always with the understanding that the nuclear negotiations were going to be resolved through the P5+1 even if other bilateral channels were going on.”

Burns’ first sit-down with the Iranians occurred before the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, the US official said, and helped bring about the 30-minute meeting between Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the UN September 26, 2013, as well as the historic Obama-Rouhani phone call on September 27th, the first conversation between the presidents of the two countries in over thirty years. The US official declined to say where the two Burns-led meetings with the Iranians occurred before UNGA; there have, in all, been “several,” the US official said.

“Bill [Burns] knows the Iranians, and he knows the issue really well,” the senior US administration official told Al-Monitor to explain why he was tapped for the sensitive mission.

Burns, only the second career US foreign service officer to be confirmed as deputy secretary of state, previously served as the lead US negotiator at P5+1 talks with Iran from 2008-2011, including at October 2009 talks in Geneva at which then Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili agreed to a nuclear fuel swap deal that Iran later backed away from amid domestic political criticism. In July 2011, when Burns was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State, he turned over the Iran/P5+1 nuclear negotiating file to his successor, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who has led the US negotiating team to the last eight rounds of P5+1 talks with Iran that culminated in an agreememt here.

Burns also previously served as US Ambassador to Russia from 2005 until 2008, and as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 until 2005. Zarif, tapped by Rouhani as foreign minister and top nuclear negotiator in August, previously served as the Iranian ambassador to the UN in New York in the early 2000s, during a brief period of testing for more constructive US-Iranian relations, including on Afghanistan in 2001.

“Running up to the [June] 2013 Iranian election, there was a sense that we had to wait and see if the Iranians under the new administration were serious about negotiations,” the US official said. “And it became clear after the Rouhani election, that they seem serious.”

“Following the election, as has been reported, Obama sent Rouhani a letter that was delivered in early August,” the official said. “Following the exchange of letters between the two presidents, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts before UNGA.”

“In those conversations, Burns and his team began to develop ideas that could be fed into the P5+1 process,” the US official said. “All of our bilateral discussions are designed to support and advance the P5+1 process; they have never been designed as a substitute. “

“As the P5+1 negotiations started picking up, Burns was joined as needed by [Under Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman,” the US official said. “They worked together to develop ideas that could be further negotiated with the P5+1. The goal, everything in the bilateral channel, was to be fed into the P5+1 channel,” the official stressed.

The US has notified P5+1 partners about the bilateral channel, the US official said, but would not disclose when. “We briefed them on the bilateral channel at the appropriate time,” the US official said. There are signs that at least some P5+1 partners were not aware of it at the second round of nuclear talks in Geneva Nov 7-9, during which the six world powers spent much of the meeting agreeing on their own text which they finally presented to Zarif late November 9.

“At the second and third rounds [of P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva], Burns was present on the margins, to be available to the P5+1 and the Iranians, and to make sure the ideas discussed were integrated back into the P5+1,” the US official said.

“Given that so much of the economic pressure on Iran comes from the United States among other reasons, that is one reason it was important to establish this direct channel,” the official said. “Our P5+1 partners all encouraged us to have a bilateral channel, and they all have their own. And they told us, eventually to get an agreement…these discussions would be necessary.”

“None of the substance in the bilateral channel differed from the P5+1,” the US official stressed. “New issues weren’t raised. It enabled more detailed discussions [to occur] in the P5+1. It’s not like any of the issues are a secret.”

Talwar has served as the top Iran advisor to the Obama White House since 2009, and previously served as a professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when it was chaired by then Senator, now Vice President Biden.

Sullivan, previously deputy chief of staff to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during Obama’s first term, became Vice President Biden’s national security advisor early this year, after Clinton stepped down from the job.

White House press officials have previously deflected queries from Al-Monitor about possible, rumored meetings involving US and Iranian officials. An NSC official suggested to Al-Monitor last week, for instance, in response to a query, that Sullivan could not be part of a meeting with Iranians because he was last week traveling with Biden in Texas and Panama. Sullivan did not respond to a query from Al-Monitor Saturday.

Similarly, the State Department’s official public schedules have regularly dissembled about Burns’ whereabouts. During both the second and current round of P5+1 Iran nuclear talks in Geneva this month, the State Department schedule said Burns was attending meetings at the White House and State Department, when Al-Monitor has confirmed that he was in fact in Geneva, even in advance of the rest of the US negotiating team. That was apparently at the direction of Burns’ office to the State Department press officer who puts together the schedules, the official said.

“We thought it important to have these discussions [with the Iranians] discreetly, given the amount of ground we had to cover, lots of it very complicated,” the US official said Friday. However, the official added, “while in some respects” the US-Iran channel “had to be secretive, it is not a surprise.”

(Photo: Deputy Secretary Burns leads the U.S. delegation at the UNHCR High-Level Segment on Syrian Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. State Dept Image / Sep 30, 2013.)

Kerry, foreign ministers to join talks to close Iran nuclear deal

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Geneva_ World powers and Iran seemed to be closing in on a deal as US Secretary of State John Kerry and other P5+1 foreign ministers said they would join talks in Geneva on Saturday.

“In light of the progress being made – and the progress that Lady Ashton and team are working very hard to achieve tonight – Secretary Kerry decided to travel to Geneva to join his ministerial colleagues tomorrow,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said Friday. “After talking to Lady Ashton and our negotiating team on the ground, he made the decision to travel here with the hope that an agreement will be reached.”

Kerry’s travel plans were announced after the arrival here Friday evening of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. UK, French and German foreign ministers also announced plans to come Saturday. China’s vice foreign minister has been here all week, and its foreign minister was reportedly also heading to Geneva.

Talks ran til almost 2am Saturday, on the third day of the third round of high level Iran nuclear talks here in Geneva in the past five weeks.

“So we’re close, but the end of a negotiation is always tough,” a US official told al-Monitor late Friday. “Because if it was easy, it would already be resolved.”

European Union foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton and her team have been running point between the Iranians and the P5+1 over the past couple days, to try to keep the process at this sensitive stage as coordinated as possible, with so many parties involved.

Kerry and European foreign ministers were expected to arrive here Saturday morning, when talks will resume.