Negotiators at halfway point, move to drafting phase of Iran deal talks

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Iran and six world powers have advanced through the first phase of comprehensive nuclear talks and are preparing to shift into the next phase of drafting a final deal accord starting at the next meeting in May, negotiators said in Vienna Wednesday.

“We have now held substantive and detailed discussions covering all the issues which will need to be part of a Comprehensive Agreement,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a joint statement with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the conclusion of the third round of talks in Vienna Wednesday.

“A lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences which naturally still exist at this stage in the process,” Ashton said, in a statement subsequently delivered by Zarif in Persian.

“We will now move to the next phase in the negotiations in which we will aim to bridge the gaps in all the key areas.”

“I can say we agree on 50 to 60 percent of issues, but the remainders are important ones and diverse,” Iran’s Zarif said in a subsequent briefing to Iranian journalists Wednesday.

The next meeting, to be held in Vienna starting May 13th, will be open-ended, diplomats said. The U.S. delegation plans to be there at least a week, a senior U.S. official said, and Zarif suggested it could last up to ten days.

“For all of us involved in this between now and July 20th, we understand that there is no higher priority,” the senior U.S. official said. “Everyone in the room has explicitly said they are ready to do whatever they need to do and change their schedules and their life to do what is necessary.”

“I think…both Zarif and Ashton are trying to manage expectations, because in the past few days, there have been rumors about the parties starting the drafting of the final agreement as of May, and this created the illusion of agreement,’ Ali Vaez, senior Iran researcher at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor from Vienna Wednesday.

The parties “wanted to make sure [to explain that there remain] central differences,” Vaez said. “Although progress has been made on some issues, there are still some sticky points.”

Until this round, the parties “have not got into the bargaining stage that much,” Vaez said. “Mostly they have been focused on providing justifications for each side’s positions and learning more about why each side takes their particular position.”

“From this point on, [they] get into the real bargaining part of this process,” Vaez said.

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to the Senate foreign relations panel Tuesday, described the final deal negotiations as at the “halfway” point, and said he remained “agnostic” about whether they would result in an agreement.

“I’m not expressing optimism, one side or the other,” Kerry said in response to a question from Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). “I remain agnostic and questioning, even as we are just about halfway through.”

“I talked with our team on the ground in Vienna yesterday,” Kerry said. “They are having serious, expert, in-depth, detailed conversations about what it takes to achieve our goal. I mean, of proving that this is a peaceful program.”

The recent rounds of negotiations “were substantive and useful,” a western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said Wednesday. “But needless to say, there is still a long way to go. We are working hard.”

(Photo: Final round of Iran comprehensive deal talks in Vienna Wednesday April 9, posted by State Department spokesperson Marie Harf to Twitter.)

Former U.S. negotiator proposes ways to reach Iran nuclear deal


Iran and six world powers can reach a comprehensive nuclear deal by agreeing on Iran’s practical needs for enrichment, which are limited in the near term; as well as on technical modifications that could be made to the Arak reactor and turning the Fordo enrichment site into a research and development facility, former U.S. nuclear negotiator Robert Einhorn writes in a paper to be released by the Brookings Institution Monday.

“I think of the big issues, Arak is the easiest,” Einhorn told Al-Monitor in an interview last week. “Fordo is hard. But the hardest single issue is enrichment capacity.”

Einhorn, in his Brookings paper, “Preventing a Nuclear Armed-Iran: Requirements for a Comprehensive Iran Nuclear Deal,” released to Al-Monitor in advance, proposes that Iran and the P5+1 define the practical needs for Iran’s civil nuclear program. “Indeed, Iran’s actual need to produce enriched uranium for fueling reactors is quite limited, at least in the near and middle terms,” he writes. “Proposed modifications to Arak [would make it] better for producing medical isotopes,” he said.

Since reaching a breakthrough interim nuclear deal last November, Iran and six world powers have held two rounds of talks to try to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear deal by the July 20th expiration of the six month Joint Plan of Action.

“For the U.S. side,…to get sufficient support domestically and abroad, the U.S. position [on the size of Iran’s enrichment program] will be pretty demanding,” Einhorn, who served as the top State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor until last summer and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said.  “If Iran wants to find a way out, I propose the practical needs issue, [which] gives them a narrative that it could explain that it won on enrichment.”

On enrichment, extending Iran’s potential “breakout” time to between six and twelve months in a final deal “could be achieved by limiting centrifuges to between 2000 and 6000 first-generation IR-1 Iranian centrifuges (or significantly lower numbers if more advanced IR-2m centrifuges are included) and reducing enriched uranium stocks, especially at the near-20 percent level,” Einhorn writes in the Brookings “requirements” paper.

“Whatever numbers and combinations [of centrifuges and uranium stocks] are chosen, lengthening the breakout timeline to between six and twelve months would require substantial reductions in current Iranian centrifuge and stockpile levels,” he writes.

On the Arak IR-40, Einhorn proposes that, at a minimum, “changes should be made in the reactor’s design to greatly reduce its production of plutonium, especially to fuel it with enriched uranium and reduce its power level,” he writes. “The best solution would be to convert it to a light water-moderated research reactor, but other options requiring less extensive modification of the reactor are being explored.”

However, “if you can’t get the Iranians to switch [Arak] to a light water reactor, you could limit the power of the Arak reactor” from 40 MW to 10 MW, and instead of natural fuel, feed low enriched fuel into it, George Perkovich, a non-proliferation expert who serves as vice president and director of non-proliferation studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al-Monitor. “Then [you could] control how long it stays in the reactor, which actually makes better medical isotopes…If you do all these things, it dramatically reduces the amount of plutonium in spent fuel,” to about 6kg a year, Perkovich said.

“That’s a serious impediment to a breakout,” Perkovich said. “That would be less than a bomb’s worth of plutonium produced [a year].”

In addition, Perkovich said, “Any proposed agreement says ‘no reprocessing.’ So the reduced plutonium concentration in spent fuel in a safeguarded reactor is a barrier added to the more fundamental barrier that Iran agrees to fore-go reprocessing and not have a facility for it.”

Can the parties reach a deal by July 20th? Or will they need an extension?

“I think both parties really do have a strong incentive to get it done in six months,” Einhorn said. “I don’t think either party has an incentive to extend it.”

However, he said, while “both sides genuinely want to reach agreement and want to create the perception that agreement is possible…[to] generate momentum, the reality is the substantive positions” are still far apart.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at the conclusion of the last round of comprehensive deal talks in Vienna this month, said reaching a final deal before the July 20 expiration of the six month Joint Plan of Action is possible.

“On four topics (Arak heavy water reactor, removal of sanctions, nuclear cooperation and uranium enrichment) we see signs of reaching an understanding which will protect the rights of the Iranian nation and move towards removal of problems,” Zarif told  Iranian reporters in Vienna March 19.

In the next round of talks, to be held in Vienna April 7-9, Zarif said the issues on the agenda to be discussed are “Iran’s access to technology, trade market and banking resources as well as the manner of inspections (of Iran’s nuclear facilities) and the period of time needed for the final phase,” Zarif said, Fars News reported.

The “brinksmanship” in the weeks of negotiations leading up to July 20 interim deal deadline could be useful for narrowing gaps in positions.

“The problem as we get closer to July, is [if the parties need an extension,] then it will be [seen as] a crisis,” Perkovich said.

(Photo of former State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor Robert Einhorn by AFP/Getty Images.)

Saudi Dep. DM meets Burns, Hagel on U.S. visit


Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan, on his debut trip to Washington in the post, met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at the State Department on Wednesday.

He will hold meetings at the Pentagon on Thursday, beginning with an honor cordon hosted by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Defense Department said.

Deputy Secretary Burns and Prince Salman discussed “our shared commitment to further strengthening our security relationship,” the State Department said. They also “discussed regional challenges, such as Syria, and the importance of regional cooperation in addressing common political and security challenges.’

A former senior US official who works on the region, speaking not for attribution, said Prince Salman was making the rounds on his first official trip to Washington in the Deputy Defense Minister job, and that it was thought he was also purchasing more big-ticket defense equipment, including F-15 aircraft, and Apache helicopters. Prince Salman, the younger half-brother of longtime former Saudi envoy to the U.S. Prince Bandar, assumed the deputy defense minister post in the Saudi Kingdom last August. In his late 30s, Prince Salman has past experience in Washington, however, having worked in the embassy here for nearly a decade.

Prince Sultan’s visit “is a getting-to-know-you occasion,” Simon Henderson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “The contrived substance will probably be details of the overall arms package agreed a couple of years ago.”

“On Salman bin Sultan, don’t forget he was Bandar’s deputy at [the Saudi intelligence service] GID and deeply involved in Syria,” Henderson said.

Prince Salman’s visit comes ahead of President Obama’s trip to Riyadh next week. The White House announced last month that Obama would add a trip to the Saudi Kingdom to the end of his trip next week to the Netherlands for the nuclear security summit, Belgium (NATO and US/EU summit), and the Vatican.

Obama, in Saudi Arabia, will meet King Abdullah, as well as other GCC leaders, Tamara Coffman Wittes said Wednesday. Items to be discussed on the visit include Syria, Iran, and the Middle East peace process, she said.

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US staffs up to pursue intensified Iran final deal talks


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

US: Iran final deal talks ‘complicated, difficult’ but ‘best chance’

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VIENNA — On the eve of the opening round of negotiations to get a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, a US diplomat said the process would be “complicated, difficult and lengthy,” but that it represented “the best chance” the world has had in a decade to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

“These next days will be the beginning of what will be a complicated, difficult and lengthy process,” the senior U.S. Administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists here Monday night. “When the stakes are this high, the devil truly is in the details. It can’t be done in a day, a week, or a month.”

“The aim is to move in a…deliberate manner to get the job done,” the official said. “We need to build on the progress of [the] first step to get a comprehensive agreement that addresses all of our concerns.”

The US official anticipated that the coming months of negotiations would likely have “some ups…and many downs” along the way, but said negotiators were going into them “clear-eyed, focused and determined…to see what can get done.” She did not rule out that an agreement could be reached within six months. President Obama has put the odds of getting a final deal at fifty/ fifty, the U.S. official noted.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif kicked off this round of talks with a dinner of Iranian kebabs and rice at the Iranian mission in Vienna Monday night. The formal meeting is due to get underway at a plenary session Tuesday 11 AM at the United Nations in Vienna, to be attended by Zarif, Ashton, and the political directors from six world powers. An afternoon session will be led by Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi and EU deputy secretary general Helga Schmid. This round of talks is currently scheduled to go til Thursday.

Procedural issues–how to structure the agenda and schedule a roadmap for negotiating a comprehensive accord– will be discussed this round, as well as substantive issues, the U.S. official said.

“How the talks will progress, the timing, how much at the expert level and political director level and foreign minister level,” the official said. “Substantively, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. …It’s tempting to hone in on one or two issues….But all of the issues must be addressed for us to get a comprehensive deal” completed.

The U.S. official said that the US and Iran have not had unannounced bilateral meetings going into the final deal talks, as they did last fall to try to advance an interim deal that was reached in Geneva November 24th. But she acknowledged that US and Iranian officials have been in email contact as needed to iron out the details for various measures in the six month deal known as the Joint Plan of Action, under which Iran halted its 20% enrichment, among other measures, in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is now having daily access to Iran’s Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilities, the U.S. official also said. The IAEA is providing monthly reports to the P5+1 on ts verification and monitoring of the steps Iran agreed to take in the Joint Plan of Action, and Iran to date has done what it committed to, she said. The P5+1 have likewise carried out the sanctions relief specifed in the six month deal, she said.

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.)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iran, world powers may hold nuclear talks in New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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