Iran, EU negotiators expected to meet (Updated)

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Top Iran and European Union nuclear negotiators are expected to meet in Istanbul on Monday, Al-Monitor has learned, though representatives of neither side would confirm the meeting date or venue.

“They will meet in Istanbul on Monday and perhaps Tuesday,” a diplomatic source, speaking not for attribution, told Al- Monitor Sunday., referring to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The Zarif Ashton meeting is expected to start Monday afternoon in Istanbul, the diplomatic source said.

After Al-Monitor’s report on the unannounced meeting Sunday, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported that Zarif and Ashton were to meet in Istanbul this afternoon and continue the next day.

The meeting comes as negotiators from Iran and six world powers are regrouping after sobering final deal talks in Vienna this month at which both sides seemed taken aback by the others’ positions, and urged their counterparts to return to the talks with more “realism.”

It is unclear why there seemed to be unusual secrecy about the Zarif-Ashton meeting, or why, if it’s to take place, it hasn’t been announced. No American officials are expected to participate in the meeting, Al-Monitor understood.

“I can’t confirm anything. i have no comment,” a spokesperson for Ashton told Al-Monitor early Monday, after Iranian media reported Zarif’s plane had departed for Istanbul to meet Ashton there. Ashton was thought to be returning from South Korea on Sunday, an EU official earlier said.

Zarif met with his Turkish counterpart Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last week on the sidelines of an Asian summit in Shanghai, China, but no visit was announced. Zarif is expected to attend a conference of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) in Algeria later in the week.

At the first real comprehensive nuclear deal negotiating round in Vienna earlier this month, the Iranians were said to be shaken by a P5+1 proposal for a ten-year (or by one account, 20-year) plan for phased sanctions relief in a final deal, that Iran found much too slow. The Iranians were also described as having felt the U.S. position in particular had hardened in the most recent Vienna meeting, sources said. (US officials deny the US position has hardened or changed). The US also reportedly raised the ballistic missile issue with the Iranians, which Iran’s negotiators have repeatedly said they refuse to discuss as they consider the missile program a sovereign defense issue outside of the P5+1’s nuclear purview.

Meantime, former US officials close to the US negotiating team have repeatedly implored Iranian negotiators to recognize that Iran’s expectations for the size of its uranium enrichment program have got to be lowered to reach a final deal.

The next round of P5+1 Iran final deal talks is expected to be held in Vienna starting on June 16th. But US, Iranian and EU officials have said there will be additional consultations in different forms and at different levels in advance of those, as the parties aim to try to close a deal by the July 20th expiration of a six month interim deal.

Separately, the US-Iran bilateral channel that helped advance an interim nuclear deal last fall has not yet restarted during the final deal talks this year, outside of bilateral meetings that have taken place on the sidelines of the P5+1/Iran talks, US and Iranian sources told Al-Monitor.

(Photo of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a dinner in Vienna May 14, 2014 by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.)

U.S. cautions Iran deal not imminent or certain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo: Reuters.)

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.)

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.)

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.)

Negotiators beat back disinfo ahead of Iran nuclear talks


Iran has not yet shared with Brussels a preview of the nuclear proposal it is expected to present to six world powers in Geneva next week, a European Union official tells Al-Monitor.

Israel’s Channel 2 reported Wednesday that sanctions may soon be lifted on Iran after the US and Iran have secretly made progress towards a nuclear deal. The report by the channel’s Middle East affairs analyst Ehud Ya’ari cited in part a Wall Street Journal report describing curbs in Iran’s nuclear work that Iran may propose.

“There is ‘more than a likelihood’ that the accelerated diplomatic contacts will produce a deal,” the Times of Israel cited the Israel Channel 2 TV report, “adding that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin ‘will come in at a certain stage… and play an important role’” but “for now, though, it is the US and Iran that are doing the negotiating.”

But western officials tell Al-Monitor they have not received the proposal. Some US Iran watchers suggested some of the reports may be pushed by sources who may want to set expectations for the Iranian proposal unrealistically high and thus make whatever Iran presents next week look wanting.

While Iranian Foreign Minister and lead nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif stayed in New York last week for meetings with Iran experts and others, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), sources who met with him said he did not go into such detail about the proposal he is expected to present at the meeting with the P5+1 in Geneva October 15-16.

Asked if the Iranians had forwarded ideas or the proposal yet to Brussels, a spokesman for lead European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told Al-Monitor Wednesday, “No.”

US nonproliferation experts who have been consulting with the US administration this week said it was their understanding that the US has also not yet received any concrete details on what the Iranians may propose.

“The P5+1 will first want to hear what Iran brings to the table,” a former senior U.S. official who worked on the issue, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “It will not be in a position to offer a road map because such a roadmap takes time to develop and reach consensus on among the various players.”

Meantime, Iranian negotiators were also contending with hardline, would-be spoilers at home. Zarif wrote on his Facebook page that he had had to go to the hospital wiih stress-induced severe back pain Tuesday after hardline Kayhan newspaper falsely reported that he had told Iranian MPs that the Supreme Leader had disapproved of his having met with Secretary of State John Kerry in New York.

“After seeing the headline of a newspaper, I got extreme back and feet pain.” Zarif wrote on Facebook, Arash Karami wrote at Iran Pulse, adding: “He then wrote that after four or five hours, seeing that the pain had not subsided, he checked himself into a hospital.”

(Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif looks at his phone during a cabinet meeting Wednesday October 8, posted to Twitter by Negar Mortazavi.)

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US sees opportunity in Iran election for progress in nuclear talks

The United States, encouraged by the signals sent by Iran’s election of Hassan Rouhani, hopes Iran engages seriously and gives a substantive response when nuclear talks resume in the fall, a senior U.S. administration official said Friday.

“We have all noted Rouhani’s positive tone and remarks post-election,” the senior U.S. administration official said in a small background conference call briefing Friday.

“We are glad for the positive words,” the official continued. “But what we are looking for are actions that indicate a desire to deal seriously with the P5+1. Words are not enough. We need a concrete response.”

The American official spoke ahead of a meeting of political directors from the P5+1–the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China–in Brussels next week (July 16th ) to discuss preparations for a new meeting with Iran in the fall. Talks between the P5+1 and Iran are likely to resume at the earliest in September, following the inauguration next month of Rouhani, and depending on the logistics of arranging a meeting around the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September.

The U.S. official said the six powers are inclined to ask the Iran nuclear negotiating team assembled under Rouhani’s administration to give a concrete response to a confidence building proposal they put forward at nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in February, rather than modify or expand it before meeting with the Iranians. But she stressed that it’s not a take it or leave it offer, but open for negotiation.

“We all believe that the proposal put on the table [in Almaty] is a good one, and there is still time and space to achieve a diplomatic solution over Iran’s nuclear program,” the official said.

“In terms of a more comprehensive proposal, if Iran says the confidence building measure is fine, but asks, where are we headed?” the official said, referring to some recent calls for the P5+1 to spell out a more detailed roadmap. “We already said to them…we do believe that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program under the NPT once it meets its responsibilities. And all sanctions will be lifted if and when it has met its responsibilities.”

“If Iran says, yes, we are interested in the CBM, but let’s talk about something larger. Alright,” the official continued. “If they say they are interested in all three measures on 20% [in the proposal], but are looking for more sanctions relief. ‘What are you looking for?” the official said, demonstrating how a negotiation over a serious Iranian counter-offer may go. “’Here’s what we want in return.’ This is a negotiation.”

“What this is really about is, the onus is on Iran, to give us some substantive, concrete response,” the official said.

The US official said the United States remains interested in bilateral talks with Iran, but didn’t indicate whether Washington was preparing a new message offering direct talks, perhaps on the occasion of Rouhani’s inauguration August 4th.

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P5+1 hopes new Iran nuclear team responds to Almaty offer

Diplomats from six world powers will meet in Brussels next week in anticipation of resuming nuclear talks with Iran in September, following the inauguration next month of Iran President-elect Hassan Rouhani.

Political directors from the P5+1 will meet in Brussels July 16th, a western official said Wednesday.

The meeting comes as western capitals signaled they hope the new Iran nuclear team selected under Rouhani responds substantively to a confidence-building proposal they presented to Iran at talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February.

“We look to a new Government in Iran to give a comprehensive response to the E3+3’s proposal for a confidence building measure, and to co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told British parliament Wednesday (July 10).

“We will respond in good faith to positive action by Iran,“ Hague said. “We are ready to improve our relations on a step by step basis, but no one should doubt our resolve to prevent nuclear proliferation.”

Hague's comments suggest western capitals have decided for now against pivoting to a “go big” offer when they resume talks with Iran, possibly in early September.

“The P5+1 is asking for a serious response to their serious proposal, which they did not receive [from Iran in the spring] because the Iranians were not in the mood to bargain just weeks before their elections,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“What everyone needs to recognize is that the proposal put forward in Kazakhstan in the spring is the opening position, it is not a take it or leave it proposition,” Kimball said. “It’s in Iran’s interest to offer a counter-proposal in September, or whenever the talks might occur.”

Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, who hosted the last two rounds of Iran nuclear talks, said that Rouhani’s election has made western officials somewhat hopeful about the prospects for progress.

“We hear different commentaries on this election, but the prevailing one is of hope,” Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov told Al-Monitor in an interview in Washington Wednesday. “Internally, [the Iranian people] voted for changes, for development.”

“Mr. Rounani in his own remarks has made very clear he wants greater engagement with the rest of the world,” Idrissov said. “And to create a more conducive environment for growth and development in Iran. There is potential for nuclear talks. It’s a hopeful situation.”

In his meetings this week, including with lead US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman, American officials have “shared sentiments of hope,” Idrissov said. “Now it’s important, that this period of hope translates into practical things. Kazakhstan is a well-wisher. It would be wise by all parties to seize the moment.”

(Photo: Iran President Elect Hassan Rouhani speaking at a press conference in Iran June 17, 2013. Ebrahim Noroozi / AP.)

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Former Obama nuclear advisor Samore: Iran might take deal after June polls

Expectations are low for an Iran nuclear deal before Iranian presidential elections in June, former White House nuclear advisor Gary Samore told the Brookings Institution Monday. After that, it’s possible Iran might agree to a deal on curbing its 20% enrichment, or it will face increasing economic sanctions, Samore said.

“I think it’s possible Iran could decide after the presidential elections to accept the small deal on the table now,” Samore, who served as President Obama’s ‘WMD czar’ until January, told the panel on Iran negotiations Monday.

From Iran’s standpoint, “it’s a good deal,” Samore, now executive director of the Harvard Belfer Center, continued. “If it is looking at ways to create a respite” from economic sanctions, “what’s on offer might do that.”

The panel on negotiating with Iran comes as diplomats from Iran and six world powers return to Almaty, Kazakhstan later this week for the second round of nuclear talks in the past five weeks.

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‘Most substantive’ Iran nuclear talks to date, but narrow area of agreement


Iranian nuclear experts deeply engaged on the substance of a revised international proposal, and said they are considering suspending 20% enrichment for six months and converting their 20% stockpile to oxide for medical use at technical talks with six world powers held in Istanbul last week, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

However, the Iranians raised numerous objections to other elements in a revised international proposal presented in Kazakhstan last month, a diplomatic source, speaking not for attribution, said Tuesday. Among them: suspending other operations at Fordo except for 20% enrichment, shipping out Tehran’s stockpile of 20% enriched fuel; as well as enhanced IAEA inspections.

American officials “had the most substantive conversation they ever had” with the Iranians, another analyst briefed on the Istanbul talks, speaking not for attribution, said. International arms control envoys “went through their [international] proposal slide by slide, and [the Iranians] didn’t focus on [their] counter proposal.”

The Iranians in Istanbul were cool to incentives in the revised offer, including modest sanctions relief, but did not explain what they would want instead, according to the diplomat.

The updated proposal offered to ease sanctions on the gold trade and petrochemical sales, but not major oil and banking sanctions, Al-Monitor reported last month.

Diplomats from six world powers head back to Almaty, Kazakhstan next week for political director level talks with Iran, to be held April 5-6.

Two sources suggested the US may be looking at additional incentives to possibly bolster the international offer, but the details were unclear.

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