Some urge U.S. to pursue bigger nuclear deal with Iran

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With Iran nuclear talks on hold until after the August inauguration of Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani, some U.S. national security experts are urging the Obama administration to pivot from trying to get a small nuclear deal with Iran, to going for a more comprehensive deal.

“Going ‘Big for Big’ now potentially gives Rouhani something substantial to use to claim he got the P5+1 to recognize Iran's ‘rights,’ something his predecessors didn't get, and thus perhaps help him build an elite consensus around a nuclear deal,” former Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told Al-Monitor Thursday.

“We should move now to presenting an endgame proposal,” former Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross wrote in the New York Times this week (June 25).  “One that focuses on the outcome that we, the United States, can accept on the nuclear issue.”

Negotiations over the past year between six world powers and Iran have focused on trying to get Iran to curb its 20% uranium enrichment in exchange for limited sanctions relief. (See the most recent P5+1 offer to Iran here.)

But Iran, at talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan in April, has said that it wants assurances that it will receive recognition of its right to enrich and the lifting of major US and European banking sanctions in exchange for stopping its 20% enrichment work and continuing to convert its 20% stockpile for medical use.

Rouhani, speaking at his first press conference following his win in Iran's June 14th presidential polls, said that Iran would not agree to suspend its lower level 3.5% uranium enrichment, as it did when he led negotiations with three European powers from 2003-2005. But he did not rule out a halt to Iran’s 20% enrichment, and signaled that Iran may be willing to offer greater transparency of its nuclear program to assure the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it wasn’t diverting material for a nuclear weapon, in exchange for having its “rights” recognized.

While one U.S. official indicated the argument for pivoting to a comprehensive proposal was getting a new hearing in the Obama administration, U.S. officials wouldn't comment if they thought that position would prevail.

“The P5+1 is consulting on what the next steps should be in this process,” Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Staff, told Al-Monitor Thursday.  “I would note, however, that Iranian officials have indicated they will not be ready to resume talks until the new President is sworn in in early August.”

Some US partners in the so-called P5+1—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany—however, have expressed wariness at the idea of putting forward any kind of end-game ultimatum to Iran. “After a ‘last chance’ offer, [then] what?” one western official, speaking not for attribution, said earlier this month. Continue reading

Buzz grows around veteran Iran insider, amid rumors of US back channels

A veteran advisor to Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is playing an increasingly public role in Iranian foreign policy and politics, after years of operating more behind the scenes in the opaque world of the leader’s inner circle, some Iran watchers say.

Ali Akbar Velayati, who served as Iran’s foreign minister from 1981-1997 and studied pediatric medicine at Johns Hopkins University in the 1970s, has long served in the shadows as a foreign policy advisor to Khamenei and regime mandarin. But in recent months, Iran analysts note, Velayati has decidedly raised his public profile, headlining an Islamic awakening conference in Tehran in July, giving media interviews, offering conciliatory messages about Iran’s interest in pursuing negotiations with world powers towards a diplomatic resolution of the Iran nuclear dispute, while asserting a hawkish stance warning against Western military intervention in Syria.

This month, Iran announced it has opened negotiations with Argentina over the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish community center, in which several senior Iranian officials, including Velayati, were implicated.

Most recently, Velayati, 68, has become the subject of persistent rumors of US-Iran back channels, which have been denied by both capitals–and by Velayati himself.

“As far as I know, Velayati is already and quietly involved on some foreign policy issues,” former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian told Al-Monitor by email Saturday. “They all would be very careful and cautious to do things with little risk before [Iran presidential] June elections.”

Velayati’s higher profile on the public scene comes amid signs that Iran’s leadership may be seeking ways to ease Iran’s confrontation with the West over its nuclear program that has led to draconian sanctions straining Iran’s economy. Khamenei has also recently sought to quiet brazen infighting among domestic political factions that has intensified in the tumultuous last years of the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Amid Ahmadinejad’s sometimes erratic foreign policy pronouncements, Supreme Leader Khamenei has for years employed Velayati and fellow former foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi to chair foreign policy advisory committees and send back channel messages to foreign leaders and policy experts. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has also been quite active in conducting both official and Track II meetings with current and former foreign officials.

“If you asked me a few months ago, whether Velayati would be a viable Iranian presidential candidate next year, I would have thought it not very likely,” Yasmin Alem, an independent Iran analyst who studies Iranian domestic politics, told Al-Monitor in an interview Friday. “His name has been out there since the 1980s. He is not charismatic, and it would seem difficult to get people to vote for him.”

But developments in recent months have caused her to reconsider. The timing of Iran opening negotiations with Argentina “is suspicious,” Alem said. “Either they want to push him to be a candidate, or it might have something to do with nuclear negotiations, if the Supreme Leader has decided to make him an envoy directly communicating with the Americans.”

For all the denials, there’s a persistence to the Iran media speculation about a rumored Velayati role in a US back channel that has added an unlikely mystique to the image of the rather uncharismatic regime insider, analysts said. The buzz around Velayati is also tied to speculation that Tehran may need an envoy with better negotiating skills, experience with the West, and diplomatic mien to be able to get Iran out of its current predicament.

Velayati is knowledgeable about “Iran’s nuclear program over the years, … and he is still the person who is commenting on US-Iran relations with much more authority than anyone else,” Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday (November 1).

When Ahmadinejad, on a visit to New York in September, stirred media headlines suggesting possible openness to US-Iran talks, it was Velayati “who refuted that back home, saying there’s been no change in Iran policy to the US,” Vaez noted.

Al-Monitor reported in August that Velayati may be a presidential candidate next year, and that his prospective candidacy was tied in part to the Iranian leadership’s desire to reduce soaring tensions with the West and Iran’s deepening international diplomatic and economic isolation. Iran’s leadership “are rational, and calculate how to deal with the US,” a former senior Iranian diplomat supportive of Velayati’s candidacy told Al-Monitor in August. Key factions of Iran’s elite are looking for more effective stewardship of Iran’s international relations and stable management of domestic affairs, the former diplomat said.

“The Iranians have now realized that in the ‘P5+1′”–the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program—“the ‘Plus 1’ stands for the United States–not Germany,” Vaez said. “They realize that without talking directly to the United States, they can’t resolve this.”

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EU-3 call for toughening sanctions on Iran amid diplomatic stalemate

The British, French and German foreign ministers called Friday for intensifying European Union sanctions on Iran, as western powers sought to show resolve in the face of Iran’s nuclear defiance and deter possible Israeli military action.

“It is necessary to increase pressure on Iran, to intensify sanctions, to add further to EU sanctions that are already enforced,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters ahead of an informal meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Cyprus Friday, Reuters reported.

“Sanctions are necessary and soon. I can’t see there is really a constructive will on the Iranian side for substantial talks,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told Reuters.

The United States has also prepared a new file of sanctions that are aimed at squeezing Iranian financial reserves, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

The show of resolve came as nuclear negotiations between six world powers and Iran remain at an impasse. Three rounds of meetings this year, and European oil sanctions that went into effect in July,  have so far failed to persuade Iran to agree to international demands that it “stop, ship and shut” its higher level 20% uranium enrichment activities and close its fortified Fordow enrichment facility. Iran has said it would be willing to discuss ending its 20% enrichment but wants recognition of its right to lower level enrichment for energy purposes, and sanctions relief.

Political directors from the P5+1, conferring in a conference call last week, decided not to hold another P5+1/Iran meeting at this time, the diplomatic sources said.

Of the six nations that make up the group–the United States, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia–only Moscow’s envoy expressed support for another meeting, a western diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Even the Chinese opposed” a meeting now, as no success is expected.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told foreign ministers she’d urged Iran, in a phone call with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator early last month, “to look very carefully at the proposals that have been put forward by the E3+3, so that we can now move forward.”

“Some ministers discussed the possibility of further sanctions,” an EU diplomat told Al-Monitor Friday. “I guess we will come back to this issue as not all ministers spoke, so it’s hard to judge whether there’s consensus or not.”

The EU-3 foreign minister statements Friday were largely intended to rally internal European resolve. They are “a joint reminder…that pressure is needed at the highest level…and to keep all of them motivated despite the adverse economic effect,” a second European diplomat told Al-Monitor Friday on condition of anonymity. “In terms of new sanctions, the thinking is in progress …In the meantime, we need to make sure there is no loophole.”

Efforts by the UN atomic watchdog agency to get access to an Iranian military base are similarly at an impasse. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in August that Iran had been engaging in an extensive clean up at the Parchin base, which some agency inspectors suspect may have been previously used to test a nuclear explosive device. Iran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes.

“Basically the IAEA track is stuck and very much linked to progress in P5+1 talks,” the diplomat said. “The “Iranians are blocking everything on the IAEA track.” Continue reading

Diplomats confer ahead of Ashton-Jalili call

Diplomats from the 5+1 conferred Tuesday ahead of an expected conversation next week between the top international and Iran negotiators, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

Political directors from the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China held a conference call Tuesday with European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, to determine exactly what she should say when she speaks with Iran’s Saeed Jalili. An exact date for the Ashton-Jalili call has not been finalized. US negotiator Wendy Sherman, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, is in Washington this week, the State Department said, after traveling earlier this month to China, Russia and London for consultations with her P5+1 counterparts on Iran and Syria.

Iran’s hosting of the non-aligned movement summit in Tehran this week has consumed its diplomatic attention for the moment and pushed back the Ashton-Jalili conversation a few days. The extra time is just as well given the P5+1 Iran diplomacy having to contend with the potential wrench thrown into the negotiating calendar presented by recent Israeli saber-rattling on Iran. House Intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said Tuesday he thinks any Israel strike on Iran will come after the US presidential election, November 6.  Israeli official sources have offered the same suggestion to Al-Monitor in interviews this month. Israeli officials indicated that a decision has not yet been taken. Continue reading

Panetta to Netanyahu: US “will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period”


The United States will use all means to ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Israeli leaders Wednesday.

The United States “will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period,” Panetta said at a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem Wednesday “We will not allow them to develop a nuclear weapon, and we will exert all options in the effort to ensure that that does not happen.”

The Pentagon chief is the latest senior Obama official seeking to reassure Israel, amid mounting concern in Washington that Israel is losing patience with the U.S. approach and may move to strike Iran this fall, I report in a piece on the front page.

“The problem we face is, to the Israelis, it looks like we are dithering and that we are going to keep on dithering until they lose their opportunity to act,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an interview with Al-Monitor shortly after his research organization held discussions with former members of Israel’s strategic dialogue. “That is not confidence-building for the Israelis.”

“The US administration’s attitude is, we’ve got to wait to see if [the sanctions are] working, Clawson said. “On sanctions, … the big question is what political impact they have, not what economic impact they have. It’s hard to know why the Iranians show up for negotiations unless sanctions are responsible.”

Three sets of high-level six-nation nuclear talks with Iran this past spring have failed to date to narrow differences on a possible confidence-building measure that would end Iran’s higher-level 20% enrichment. Washington will not agree to another P5+1 political directors meeting with Iran if there is no serious prospect of progress toward an agreement, sources told Al-Monitor. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and chief Iran nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili are due to confer this month to see if there’s a basis for further negotiations.

American diplomats said, however, there is significant value to the diplomatic channel despite the lack of progress to date.

“My feeling is it’s very, very important … to see if there is some give in Iran positions,” former US Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey said Tuesday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “As we go down to the wire, there is some hope for that particular channel.”

Meantime, some Israeli analysts continue to believe Netanyahu will heed the advice of his military and intelligence chiefs who are warning against unilateral Israeli action.

“The chances for an Israeli strike are very low, given the objections inside the security establishment,” Noam Sheizaf wrote at Israeli online magazine +972. “I think that Netanyahu is now trying to negotiate an American promise to attack by a certain date in 2013. An American led attack would eliminate the risk of political fallout resulting from a military failure, and save Netanyahu the need to fight with the entire security establishment.”

American defense experts are not convinced the threat of an Israeli strike has receded.

“Israeli anxiety and [the] risk of [an Israeli] Iran strike [are]  real, but [Israeli] impatience [is] also meant to press the administration in the wake of the Romney trip,” former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl wrote on Twitter.

(U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (front, R) greet Israeli soldiers after a joint news conference during a visit to the Iron Dome defense system launch site in Ashkelon August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool.)

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.

 

Iran’s UN envoy on war, peace, and nuclear diplomacy

Iran’s envoy to the United Nations Mohammad Khazaee sat down with Barbara Slavin and myself for a long interview Tuesday to discuss the Iran nuclear negotiations.

“It is possible to close the gap,” Khazaee told us, referring to the two sides’ mismatched proposals for resolving the nuclear dispute. But tremendous mistrust prevails on both sides.

I asked Khazaee about international insistence  that Iran take the first step–something more concrete than the Supreme Leader’s re-issuance of his fatwa against nuclear weapons.

He suggested  that agreement on a 20% deal was “not off the table.”

He also revealed some more details about the P5+1’s proposal to Iran, beyond the requests that Iran take as a first step: stop 20% enrichment, ship out its 20% stockpile, and stop operations at Fordo. He noted what he described as highly provisional language used for proposed reciprocal steps offered in the P5+1 package. “There is no promise in the proposal. “There is ‘consideration, thinking, trying,”’ he said, before giving several examples.

“Step two was capping enrichment at 5% as well as [ending production of] the heavy water in Arak, in exchange for ‘thinking, finding a way’ for removal of unilateral sanctions,” the Iranian envoy said.

The third step “is that Iran should implement fully the Security Council resolutions,”  requiring Iran to suspend all enrichment,” he said. “Then they will ‘consider’ remov[ing] the [UN] sanctions.”

Still, he acknowledged, the P5+1 proposal as he described seemed to lay out at least a provisional road-map for longer term easing of sanctions and normalization of international ties that Iran says it has been seeking. Continue reading

US seen hardening its position in Iran nuclear talks

Iran came to talks in Moscow last week (June 18-19) prepared to discuss stopping enriching uranium to 20% but refused two other conditions that might have led to a partial agreement in the nuclear standoff, Barbara Slavin and I report on the front page:

Briefings by diplomats whose countries took part in the talks portrayed the meetings as a “dialogue of the deaf,” with the two sides trading widely divergent proposals. However, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator did express willingness to discuss one key step requested by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1): stopping enrichment of uranium to 20% U-235, the isotope that gives uranium its explosive power.

The western members of the P5+1 insisted, however, that Iran had to meet all three conditions contained in their proposal: stop 20% enrichment, ship out a stockpile of more than 100 kilograms of 20%-enriched uranium and close Fordo, a fortified enrichment facility built into a mountain near Qom.

That stance has led some P5+1 members to conclude that the United States hardened its position in Moscow compared to two earlier sessions in Baghdad and Istanbul, according to diplomatic briefings shared with Al-Monitor. [...]

“Earlier, the US had implied that they were ready to address the three E3+3 demands … separately,” a briefing shared with Al-Monitor said, using the terminology Europeans employ for the P5+1. “However, this position had changed in Moscow,” where the US insisted “that the three demands should be treated inseparably, as a package.”

Indeed, after the P5+1 presented its proposal to Iran in Baghdad last month, Washington’s clear expectation was that Iran would not accept it as-is.

“There were two possible scenarios,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, in an interview with Al-Monitor Tuesday. “Either the P5+1’s proposal was no more than an opening salvo,” and it would be willing to negotiate better terms with Iran based on it during the next round, “or with tougher sanctions looming in the horizon, it was simply a take-it-or-leave-it offer. And it turned out in Moscow that Washington was not prepared to offer more.”

 

Go read the whole piece.

I also report that Bob Einhorn, the State Department Iran sanctions czar and a veteran nonproliferation expert, will lead the U.S. team participating in P5+1/Iran technical talks in Istanbul next week (July 3rd).

Iran’s team is expected to be led by Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, although that is not confirmed.

 

Ashton-Jalili chat for an hour: “Moscow is a green light”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had a one hour phone conversation with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Monday evening, after several days of bickering between western and Iranian negotiators about preparations for upcoming nuclear talks in Moscow.

“Moscow is a green light,” a western diplomat told Al Monitor Monday was the upshot of the call.

Ashton, in the call, updated Iran’s chief negotiator, Dr. Saeed Jalili, on the conclusions of the six nation international negotiating group, which met in Strasbourg Monday.

“Jalili went on and on about need for a technical meeting,” a European diplomat told Al Monitor on condition he not be identified. “Ashton stayed firm.”

The Iranians “have now backed down from that and appear prepared to engage on our proposals, which is important for us,” he added. “We will respond to their ideas.”

Ashton and Jalili “agreed on the need for Iran to engage on the E3+3 proposals, which address its concerns on the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program,” a statement from a spokesperson for Ashton said.

“She also conveyed the E3+3’s readiness to respond to the issues raised by the Iranians in Baghdad.”

The Ashton-Jalili conversation–the first since difficult nuclear talks in Baghdad last month–comes after several days of rancorous correspondence between the deputy European and Iranian negotiators over preparations for the upcoming Moscow talks. Among the low-points: Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri reportedly claimed he never received a copy of a detailed confidence building proposal presented by the international group to Iran in Baghdad last month, the Guardian reports. (The EU’s Helga Schmid resent the proposal Monday, “as Iran seemingly ignores the existence of the paper (which had been handed over by DSG [Schmid] to [Bagheri]  personally in Baghdad on May 23),” a western diplomat said, reflecting evident frustration from the last few days interactions with Tehran.

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Iran complains over preparations for Moscow nuclear talks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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