US diplomat: Six powers to outline ‘clear path’ for Iran sanctions relief, nuclear power

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Almaty, Kazakhstan — Western diplomats said Monday they will put an updated proposal with some sanctions relief on the table when they meet with Iranian negotiators in Kazakhstan Tuesday for the first time in almost eight months.

They also stressed that they are hoping to get some momentum for a higher tempo of meetings with the Iranians in the coming months, possibly to be held at the technical experts level, in order to try to advance prospects for a deal (or assess Iran’s willingness to make a deal). Notably, diplomats signaled they would offer the Iranians a “clear pathway” to further sanctions relief and a civilian nuclear program, hinting at possible recognition of what Iran considers its right to enrich at the end of a step by step process.

“The real message is for Iran to appreciate there is a path forward for them to get the relief they are seeking and have a peaceful nuclear [energy] program,” a senior US official told journalists in Almaty Monday.

“What we will try to do here is put a modified proposal on the table, that both takes into account changes in Iran’s [nuclear] program, and is responsive to Iran’s desire for the P5+1 to recognize Iran’s needs,” the US diplomat said.

The modified international proposal is a “real, serious, and substantive” offer, the American official said. “We are trying to outline a pathway for sanctions relief. The President has been clear if Iran keeps all its obligations… under the NPT and IAEA….there is absolutely a pathway for it to have peaceful nuclear power.”

While western diplomats said they did not expect a breakthrough at the talks in Almaty this week, they did express the clear hope that Iran would be willing to continue talks soon at the technical level–if possible, before the Iranian New Year’s holiday of Nowruz in March.

“What I’d like is for the Iranians to see that the proposal put on the table is a serious one, a confidence building measure, not the final act in the play,” another nation’s diplomat at the talks told a few journalists in Almaty earlier Monday. “To go and consider it and possibly follow up at the experts level, to see if there’s some common ground.”

“Having been through the process before, I would not predict a decisive breakthrough tomorrow, although I’d be delighted if it happened,” he said. “I know usually both sides need time to consider what is put on the table.”

The revised international offer, proposed higher tempo of experts level meetings–which diplomats described as more productive and involving more direct US-Iran interchanges–and outlining path to further sanctions relief could have another purpose: to test out over time if Iran can say yes, or is assessed to be either unwilling or incapable of agreeing to a deal.

The second diplomat somewhat downplayed what has recently been heard as a growing concern in Washington, that the Iranian leadership may be almost incapable of making a deal even if it wanted one, including because of political infighting and unrealistic expectations exacerbated by Iran’s diplomatic isolation.

The Iranians are “sophisticated operators,” the diplomat close to the talks countered.

“There are real challenges for them in reaching a deal,” he acknowledged. “Not least, how to present it in a way that is a win-win solution. We all really want this to be a win-win end state.”

However, sanctions imposed last year on Iran’s energy and banking sectors “can only get lighter in response to steps taken by the Iran side,” he added.

US officials said the modified proposal had not been shared with the Iranians in advance of the Almaty meeting, so that the six powers could present it fully and explain what each element is meant to address. They declined to confirm details of the modified proposal, except to say it offered “some changes and steps in the arena of sanctions relief,” as the US official put it.

An official close to the Iranian delegation told Al-Monitor Monday that the Iranians were coming to Almaty “to listen,” to see if there are “any new ideas.” Continue reading

EU: Iran talks officially set

Iran will resume nuclear talks with six world powers on Feb. 26 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, European Union diplomats said Tuesday.

“Helga Schmid, Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service, agreed today with Dr Ali Bagheri, Deputy Secretary of the supreme national security council of Iran, that the next round of talks between the E3+3 and Iran on Iran's nuclear programme will take place in Almaty, Kazakhstan on 26th February,” a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement Tuesday.

Ashton thanked Kazakhstan for agreeing to host the meeting. (A US official noted that “Kazakhstan is a country that had a nuclear weapons program and voluntarily gave it up in the ‘90s,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists Monday.  “So it sets a powerful example.”)

Talks have been on hiatus since last summer, after three rounds of talks failed to narrow agreement on a deal under which Iran would stop its 20% enrichment activities.

Iran notified the IAEA last week that it intends to install as many as 3,000 more advanced IR-2M centrifuges at its enrichment plant at Natanz.

Iran has been giving mixed signals about returning to the negotiating table, as well as whether it would take up an offer for direct talks with the United States.

Iran Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, for his part, expressed optimism on Monday. Continue reading

Iran FM says new nuclear talks Feb. 25

Iran’s Foreign Minister said Sunday that nuclear talks with six world powers will resume in Kazakhstan on February 25th. Western diplomats welcomed the remarks, but said they were still waiting for official confirmation from Iran’s nuclear negotiating team.

Ali Akbar Salehi, addressing the Munich Security Conference, said he’d heard the “good news” that agreement on the new P5+1 meeting date and location had been reached the day before.

A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said they hoped Salehi’s encouraging comments are soon officially confirmed by her formal counterpart on Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, Dr. Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

“Our latest proposal had indeed been Kazakhstan in the week of February 25 after other proposals had not worked,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said by email Sunday. “So it is good to hear that the Foreign Minister finally confirmed now. We hope the negotiating team will also confirm.”

“We aren’t fully there yet,” another western official cautioned Sunday, saying negotiators hope to lock in confirmation over the next day.

Iran’s foreign ministry does not take the lead in Iran nuclear negotiations, and Salehi has often presented a more conciliatory Iranian stance on the international stage.

Salehi also offered mild support for US Vice President Joe Biden’s comments asserting US willingness to hold direct talks with Iran, but was not committal about whether Iran would take up the offer.

Continue reading

Diplomats hoping for Iran nuclear talks in late January

Catherine Ashton, Vice-President of the EC, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy participates at a meeting of the E3 + 3 on the Iranian nuclear issue.
The latest on long anticipated P5+1 Iran talks: They are not happening next week, as western negotiators had been hoping.

A Western diplomat told the Back Channel Friday that efforts are now underway to  arrange a meeting at the end of the month, but cautioned that no date or venue had yet been agreed.

“Nothing confirmed,” a second, European official said Saturday.

An unnamed Russian official reportedly said Friday that nuclear negotiations would resume at the end of January in Istanbul. That followed  Russia’s lead negotiator Sergei Ryabkov criticizing the long pause in talks. Diplomats from the six world powers and Iran held three rounds of talks last spring and summer. Expectation that talks would resume shortly after the US presidential elections in November have not materialized, however, as in recent weeks Iran has not responded to at least two dates proposed by the six parties. “This becomes unclear and sends a wrong signal,” Ryabkov was cited by Itar-Tass Jan. 9.

American officials have interpreted the Iranian delay in scheduling talks to date as a potentially inauspicious sign of continued dysfunction or indecisiveness in Tehran, diplomatic sources told the Back Channel. Continue reading

US sees hopeful sign in Iran pausing 20% stockpile

The Obama administration sees a potentially encouraging sign in the fact that Iran held flat its stockpile of higher enriched uranium last summer, the New York Times reports. However, analysts note that Iran subsequently resumed growing its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium in the fall and suggested the Iranian leadership’s intentions remain unclear.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in August that Iran had diverted almost half its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium for medical use, thus keeping its stockpile of the higher enriched fuel steady at 91kg between May and August.

“One American official said the move amounted to trying to ‘put more time on the clock to solve this,’ characterizing it as a step ‘you have to assume was highly calculated, because everything the Iranians do in a negotiation is highly calculated,’” the New York Times’ David Sanger and James Risen reported Thursday (Dec. 27).

However, the latest IAEA Iran report from November shows that diversion of 20% fuel for medical purposes had not continued in the fall. Rather, Iran resumed adding to its 20% stockpile, which had grown to almost 135 KG by November 18th. (It would take about 200 KG of 20% enriched uranium to be higher enriched to weapons grade — 90% purity–to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb.)

Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian told the Back Channel the explanation for the temporary diversion is simple: Iran has now produced enough 20% enriched uranium to build the fuel rods needed for the Tehran Research Reactor that produces isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients. Thus, “from now on and as a confidence building [measure], Tehran [can] try either to convert or to slow down the production amount,” Mousavian said by email Friday.

However, given that the pause in Iran’s growth in its 20% stockpile did not continue into the fall, some Iran and arms control analysts expressed puzzlement at the US official’s reported assessment of the development, noting it comes amid a lot of mixed signals.

“There’s a real effort to indicate that things are going swimmingly and that a resumption of talks is imminent,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Back Channel Friday, adding his own view is that is “overly optimistic.”

“With the latest evidence”— that Iran had resumed growing its 20% stockpile—“there is less of a reason” to be confident in what Iran intended to signal with its diversion of 20% uranium for medical purposes last summer, the Arms Control Association’s Greg Thielmann told the Back Channel Friday. “Not that it removes it entirely. It still applies.” Continue reading

Good cop, bad cop: Iran nuclear chief defiant on key demand

Iran’s hardline nuclear chief vowed Tuesday that Iran would continue to produce 20% enriched uranium as long as it needs, in defiance of a key international demand in negotiations expected to resume in the coming weeks.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will not suspend 20 percent uranium enrichment because of the demands of others,” Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation (AEOI), was cited Tuesday by Iranian news agencies, Reuters reported.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will produce 20 percent enriched uranium to meet its needs and for however long it is required,” he said.

Iran has said it needs to domestically enrich the 20% fuel to provide isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients.

Abbasi’s comments came a day after Iran’s foreign minister struck a conciliatory tone, expressing optimism about prospects for progress at upcoming nuclear talks. “Both sides … have concluded that they have to exit the current impasse,” Salehi said Monday (Dec 17). “Iran wants its legitimate and legal right and no more.”

Diplomats are still uncertain when a new round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 will be held, though the working assumption is that it will come together next month. A spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told Al-Monitor Tuesday they had still not heard back from Iran on dates they had proposed last week.

“We did make an offer with regard to venue and timing for another round, but we have yet to hear from the Iranians on this,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at a press conference Monday. “So really, the ball is in the Iranians’ court.”

Amid the uncertainty on the P5+1 track,  Iran expressed interest in moving forward with talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A senior IAEA team visited Iran this month, pronouncing it a useful visit, and is due to return January 16th. Continue reading

P5+1 to propose new meeting dates to Iran

Diplomats from six world powers, following further unpublicized consultations in recent days, have decided to propose to Iran dates for holding a new round of nuclear talks as early as this month, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor Monday. However, a meeting is not expected to materialize before January, they said.

Diplomats from five of the six nations in the so-called P5+1 also agreed in their latest consultation to “update” the package presented to Iran at a meeting in Baghdad last May, the diplomatic sources said, although they downplayed expectations for major changes to the package. In addition, one country, believed to be Russia, had not yet formally signed on to that decision, one expert briefed by the US administration told Al-Monitor Monday, adding that it was his understanding the dissenting nation wanted a more revamped, generous package. That position is apparently now at odds with the consensus of other members of the international negotiating group, comprised of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia.

“Dates in December will be proposed, but I doubt a meeting will materialize before January,” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday.

“The package needs a little bit of updating, as things have evolved since the package was defined, but nothing radical is to be expected,” the diplomat added.

A spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, asked by Al-Monitor Monday about the consultations, said that a date for the next round of Iran nuclear negotiations “is still under discussion.” There had been no physical meeting of the P5+1 in recent days, he added.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to the Saban Forum of Middle East experts in Washington late last month, alluded to intense consultations on the issue of what the international group should present to Iran at resumed nuclear talks.

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

The Obama administration had in recent weeks been debating whether the “stop, shut and ship” package presented to Iran last May should be “refreshed” and possibly broadened to what some in the administration called “more for more.” The “more for more” offer, as one US source explained it to Al-Monitor last month, would envision updating the Baghdad 20% proposal to get more verifiable limits on the rest of Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for greater international concessions, including some form of sanctions relief.

But the diplomatic sources told Al Monitor Monday that the changes to the package were not expected to be large scale.

Some Washington Iran watchers expressed concern at the contradictory signals the international group was sending, including regarding their sense of urgency for getting back to negotiations, in light of the fact no new talks had been scheduled more than a month after the US presidential elections, held November 6th. Continue reading

P5+1 negotiators to consult on Iran

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton is expected to have a phone conversation with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili next week, following the end of Ramadan.

“For the time being, they have agreed to speak on the phone, with [Ashton] consulting closely with her E3+3 colleagues,” a European Union spokesman told Al-Monitor.

Ashton will brief P5+1 negotiators on her conversation. P5+1 political directors may also meet next week in Europe, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

Lead U.S. Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, has held discussions with her counterparts in China and Russia this past week, on Iran and Syria.  She has since traveled to London, where diplomatic sources said she is holding meetings with her EU3 counterparts.

“Under Secretary Sherman had very serious discussions with both Deputy Foreign Minister Gatilov and Deputy Foreign Minister [Sergei] Ryabkov, in particular on issues regarding Syria and Iran,” a State Department readout of her meeting Thursday said.

“On Iran, she said we remain committed to the two-track approach, and believe diplomacy still has a chance to succeed,” it continued.

Former nuclear watchdog: IAEA should offer Iran “grace period” for disclosures, extended access

Last month, Pierre Goldschmidt, the former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), proposed a solution to one of the trickiest parts of the Iran nuclear diplomacy puzzle. In short, why should Iran confess alleged past research on suspected military dimensions of its nuclear program to the IAEA, if doing so will almost certainly lead, at this stage, to new sanctions, punitive measures and isolation?

Goldschmidt’s idea, outlined in a paper and speech to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Estonia last month, would make sense to any US defense attorney or prosecutor: essentially, offer Iran a “grace period” to confess to the IAEA, and the disclosures acknowledged would not be punished.

“On the contrary, Iran should be assured that it will be praised for its cooperation with the IAEA,” Goldschmidt wrote, as was the case for Libya after it acknowledged a nuclear weapons program in 2004. “Without such a grace period, it is unlikely that Iran would fully cooperate with the IAEA or voluntarily declare any past violations.”

(Should evidence later emerge that it had withheld information, that would be cause for additional sanctions, however, the other part of Goldschmidt’s suggestion goes.)

The “grace period,” Goldschmidt argues, should be granted to Iran as soon as it formally agrees to offer extended access rights to IAEA inspectors at least for a period of time.

The logic of such an arrangement is multiple: it incentivizes Iran to come clean, offers it a pathway in from the cold if it is interested. It could also help rebuild confidence and restore damaged relations between Tehran and the nuclear watchdog agency.

“Such disclosures could be very beneficial for confidence building,” Goldschmidt wrote. “If Iran were to admit that it had been working towards becoming a nuclear threshold state and has undertaken some weaponization activities in the past, it would help persuade the international community that this time, Tehran has indeed opted for full cooperation and transparency.”

The arrangement would also overcome a weakness inherent to the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), he said.

“Any state can become a nuclear threshold state”—which he defined as a country which has the capacity to build one or more nuclear devices in less than one year—“without being in breach of the NPT,” the former IAEA safeguards chief said in a telephone interview from Brussels Tuesday. Continue reading

Iran, EU negotiators squabble over preparations for Moscow talks

Western diplomats are expressing some concerns ahead of new P5+1/Iran nuclear talks in Moscow later this month. Among them, Iranian media reports Tuesday claiming that international negotiators have not responded to Iranian requests for preparatory meetings ahead of the Moscow talks, which are scheduled for June 18-19th.

The claim is just not true, a European diplomat said Tuesday.

Iran, in a May 29th letter to EU deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid, requested an experts meeting ahead of the Moscow talks, the diplomat told Al Monitor.

Schmid’s office responded to the Iranian request, in a June 4th letter, saying it believes what’s needed now is a meeting among political envoys to advance the diplomatic process,  the diplomat said. The European negotiators proposed a meeting of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, but has yet to get any response.

“We think the issue is political and have proposed a direct Ashton-Jalili contact which they’ve stalled on so far,” the diplomat said.

“We have told them that we need to advance at a political level,” the diplomat said. “We need a clear signal of Iranian readiness to engage on the substance of the E3+3 proposal. An experts meeting won’t do now as we saw when the progress made at lower levels in the run-up to Baghdad did not translate into more at the political level in Baghdad itself. Some things can only be done at a political level.”

Why are the Iranians saying to their press that international negotiators haven’t responded to their request? Western diplomats aren’t sure, but their theories range from misinformation to efforts to shift the blame if the Moscow talks fail.

“Hard to tell which one it is,” the diplomat said. “But we are doing what we can to make this process a success.” Continue reading