Iran seen stalling on date for nuclear talks

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Western diplomats are not encouraged–if not much surprised–by signs Iran is playing games in scheduling a new date for nuclear talks.

Iran doesn't seem ready to negotiate, or else is “playing for time,” one US administration official told the Back Channel over the weekend.

International negotiators have been waiting for Iran to agree on a date for a new round of talks with six world powers–possibly as soon as next week.

“We’re actively working on getting agreement on a date and venue,” a senior western official told the Back Channel Wednesday. “Stay tuned.”

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, speaking in India last week, said he expected talks between Iran and the P5+1 to be scheduled some time this month.

But as of Tuesday, Iran had not settled on a date.

Western diplomats fear if the Iranians don’t RSVP very soon, it will be logistically difficult to put together a meeting for next week.

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 tell the Back Channel.

American negotiators “are ready, if Iran says yes, to work through with them a step by step deal,” a Washington non-proliferation expert told the Back Channel Tuesday. “They want to be able to make a deal. And a major concern is whether Iran is capable of making a deal, whether the Supreme Leader is capable of even deciding that he wants to make a deal. That is where their concern is.” Continue reading

Mixed signals from P5+1 ahead of new Iran talks


Six power talks with Iran, on hold since July, now seem likely to resume more or less where they left off, though the updated package does offer specific, if limited, sanctions relief, and would be the “opening bid,” sources tell the Back Channel.

After weeks of deliberations, the updated P5+1 proposal to Iran is more or less a warmed up version of what was presented to Iran last May in Baghdad, Barbara Slavin reported at Al Monitor Wednesday.

But sources familiar with the American deliberations tell the Back Channel the six powers might be willing to sweeten the deal if and when the Iranians return to the table, but do not want to appear overly eager.

“On Iran, it may be the P5+1 have agreed behind the scenes to some possible sanctions relief …but don’t want to be seen as too eager for a deal,” a source familiar with US administration thinking told the Back Channel Thursday on condition of anonymity. “Any offer they make is only an initial bid.”

The presumption is that the Iranians will demand more no matter how generous the updated initial offer is. “So the P5+1 may be putting the ball in Tehran’s court to start the more-for-more discussion, and then will respond accordingly,” he said. If Iran wants more, what more would they be willing to offer.

The P5+1 “have decided to put concrete sanctions relief in the package,” another expert told the Back Channel on condition of anonymity Thursday. Such relief specifies that “Iran could purchase certain things, what are those certain things,” with a degree of concrete detail apparently not in the original package. Continue reading

Iran diplomat: Iran looking for endgame in nuclear talks

An Iranian diplomat tasked with liaising with foreign policy experts told reporters Friday he’s not very optimistic about upcoming nuclear talks, but did not rule out the prospect of a compromise on Iran’s 20% enrichment activities.

“Personally speaking, I am not optimistic,” Mostafa Dolatyar, the head of the Iranian foreign ministry think tank IPIS, told reporters at the Iranian embassy in New Delhi on Friday, Reuters reported.

“They”—the six powers that comprise the P5+1, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia—“have made certain connections with purely technical issues and something purely political,” Dolatyar continued. “As far as this is the mentality … from [the] 5+1…definitely there is no end for this game.”

Deputy nuclear negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 held a phone conversation Wednesday to initiate logistical planning for a new round of nuclear negotiations, Al-Monitor reported (December 12). Preparations for a new meeting have gotten underway as the six powers have been debating how to update a proposal  on curbing Iran’s higher 20% enrichment work, first presented to Iran at a meeting in Baghdad last May.

“The package has the same bone structure, but with some slightly different tattoos,” a senior US official was cited by the Washington Post Friday.

“Our assessment is that it is possible that they are ready to make a deal,” the official said. “Certainly, the pressure is on.”

Al-Monitor first reported in October that Iran’s leadership had tapped Dolatyar to serve as a central point of contact for approaches from outside-government foreign NGOs and nonproliferation experts, in an effort to reduce mixed messages ahead of anticipated resumed nuclear negotiations.

“Mostafa Dolatyar, a career Iranian diplomat who heads the Iranian foreign ministry think tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), was tapped by Iran’s leadership to coordinate contacts with American outside-government policy experts, including those with former senior US officials involved unofficially in relaying ideas for shaping a possible nuclear compromise,” Al-Monitor wrote October 31.

The appointment is the result of a desire “on the Iranian side for a more structured approach to dealing with America,” Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran nuclear expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor in October.

Ahead of a new meeting–the date is still unclear, international negotiators have been debating how to update a proposal that would curb Iran’s higher 20% enrichment work on a short time table, given the size of Iran’s accumulated stockpile of fissile material and the concern that the Iranian leadership may become more politically distracted and uncompromising as it heads into its presidential elections in June.

Dolatyar, speaking to reporters Friday, offered a rationale for Iran’s 20% enrichment activities, saying it needed the fuel for medical purposes, but did not rule out the possibility of a compromise. 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

Israel, Iran attend arms talks in Brussels

Both Israel and Iran took part in a European nonproliferation conference in Brussels this week. The meeting, first reported by the Guardian, was held to advance uncertain prospects for a conference on transforming the Middle East into a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, which Finland is due to host later this year.

But many eyes were on the dynamic between the two arch enemy nations. The diplomatic encounter comes as world powers expect to hold a new round of P5+1 talks with Iran later this month, and amid a recent uptick in rumored contacts exploring the possibility of direct US-Iran talks to advance a nuclear deal.

Israeli and European diplomats, for their part, downplayed that the Brussels meeting was anything much out of the ordinary, noting it’s an annual seminar, and that Israeli and Iranian officials had no direct contact at the meeting. “We’re talking here about an EU Seminar that takes place every year with more that 100 people attending,” one European diplomat told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “This was not an Israeli-Iranian meeting, nor were either positive.”

“Sorry to disappoint, but there was absolutely no contact between me and Soltanieh there,” Jeremy Issacharoff, the Israeli diplomat who led the Israeli delegation to the Brussels meeting, told Al-Monitor by email Tuesday, referring to Iran’s envoy to the IAEA Ali Ashgar Soltanieh. “Over recent years, I have been in many seminars and track 2 meetings like this, and believe me, any exchanges are mostly pretty hostile.”

The Israeli delegation, in addition to Issacharoff, Israel’s deputy director general of strategic affairs, included Ariel “Eli” Levite, the former deputy head of Israel’s atomic energy commission, a source at the talks said.

Iran’s delegation, in addition to Soltanieh, included Hamid Aref, the deputy head of Iran’s mission to Belgium and the European Union, and Babee, another diplomat from the Iranian mission in Brussels.

Soltanieh announced Tuesday that Iran plans to attend the Helsinki WMD free zone conference. Israel to date has signaled it is unlikely to attend, but European diplomats continue to try to persuade it to participate. (Soltanieh’s announcement, made in the meeting’s closing session, “scored a PR coup,” the European diplomat said. It was a “smart tactical move by the Iranians, now putting the pressure on the conveners and Israel.”)

Participants in the two-day Brussels seminar offered a mixed take on the atmospherics. “In all the sessions I attended, the tone was respectful and largely positive,” Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran nuclear expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told Al-Monitor, adding, however, that “in one breakout session I didn’t attend, some crockery reportedly came close to being broken, but so far, so good.”

While there was “little..concrete outcome from this seminar, … the fact that Iranian and Israeli attendance was quite good is telling,” Dina Esfandiary, also of IISS, said.

Such diplomatic encounters are not quite as rare as advertised–as Issachaoff’s comments indicate–although there is no sign they signal any shift in the two nations’ mutual hostility.

Current and former Israeli and Iranian officials have in fact taken part in various meetings and unofficial dialogues across Europe over the years, including at least two previous meetings this year, Al-Monitor has learned.

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Reading between lines of Ashton’s Iran statement

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told her Iranian counterpart Thursday that Iran needs to agree soon on a plan to stop its 20% enrichment, or there wasn’t much prospect of the current diplomatic track continuing as such indefinitely.

That, anyway, seemed to be the message between the lines of a stark four-line statement she made after a phone call Thursday with Dr. Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. Her statement, (and my annotations) below: Continue reading

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Intense and tough’ Iran nuclear talks in Moscow reveal wide gaps

Moscow_ Iran for the first time on Monday gave a point-by-point response to an international proposal on halting its 20% enrichment activities. But international diplomats said the presentation, replete with PowerPoint slides, at a meeting in Moscow Monday, if anything only made more daunting the diplomatic challenge of trying to narrow the yawning gaps between the two sides in the near term.

“We had an intense and tough exchange of views today,” Michael Mann, spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief and lead international negotiator Catherine Ashton, told journalists at the conclusion of the first day of international Iran nuclear negotiations in Moscow Monday.

The Iranians “responded to our package of proposals from Baghdad but, in doing so, brought up lots of questions and well-known positions, including past grievances,” Mann said. “We agreed to reflect overnight on each others’ positions.”

“It’s not enough, it’s not close to enough,” a diplomat at the talks said later, on condition of anonymity, saying the lengthy Iranian presentations Monday did not strike him as signaling Iranian seriousness about negotiations on confidence-building steps.

Then again, the Russians would not want the Iran diplomatic process to “break down” on their turf, he surmised. Some stray hopes for progress rested on the fact that lead Iran negotiator Dr. Saeed Jalili had a dinner meeting Monday night with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s national security council and former FSB chief, although no results from it were yet known Monday night. “We’ll see what happens tomorrow,” the official said.

The lead Russian negotiator at the talks acknowledged wide gaps in the two sides’ thoughts on how to structure and sequence a work plan for easing international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and accumulating stockpile of 20% enriched uranium.

“The difficulty here is not only quite a distance between the positions but also the sequencing … what comes first, what comes next, what this reciprocity means,”  Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told journalists upon leaving the meetings–at a hotel near Moscow’s Foreign Ministry and famed Arbat pedestrian boulevard. “The logic of the negotiations is extremely complicated.”

Diplomatic observers cautioned that these high-stakes multiparty talks tend to have an ebb and flow, and things that looked irrevocably stuck at one point sometimes got unstuck a few hours later. Sometimes.

“Give this some time,” a European diplomat said late Monday. “We can’t judge the talks every five minutes.”

Mann’s statement that the parties had agreed to “reflect overnight” seemed to imply code for the Iranian negotiators having an opportunity to make calls back to Tehran for further consultations and instructions. (The point when it becomes evident that things can’t move further until Iran calls back home comes in every such meeting, diplomats have said.) There were likely some calls back to Washington and European capitals Monday evening as well. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

Iran, rebuffed in request for experts meeting, may seek delay in Moscow talks

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili on Wednesday wrote European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton complaining that she had rebuffed Iran’s request for an experts meeting ahead of a new round of nuclear talks scheduled for Moscow June 18-19th, Iran’s IRNA news agency reports. The letter is the latest sign of trouble for the diplomatic process and added to signs Iran may be seeking to delay the meeting.

Jalili’s letter “said that the EU failure to arrange experts meeting led by deputies of the negotiators to draft agenda of the talks created an atmosphere of doubt and ambiguity for success of the Moscow talks,” IRNA wrote.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran in light of bright logic and distinctive initiatives wants to advance the nuclear talks toward cooperation,” Jalili’s letter said, according to IRNA.

“As far as we’re concerned, Moscow goes ahead,” a Western diplomat told Al Monitor Thursday.

European diplomats earlier told Al Monitor that Iran had sought an experts meeting ahead of the Moscow negotiations, but that the EU had written back Monday asserting its contention that what was needed now was not more technical-level discussions but a meeting among political envoys.

“I am not saying technical issues are irrelevant,” a European diplomat told Al Monitor Thursday.

“We need Iran to engage seriously on the substantial proposal we have put forward” in Baghdad, he continued, “as this is a political decision for them to make that cannot be solved at a technical level. We cannot be drawn into long procedural and protocol discussions without substance for the sake of buying time.”

International negotiators “offered an experts’ meeting in Baghdad to Jalili to explain [the proposal] in more detail, but they [then] refused to have an experts’ meeting on substance,” he added.

European negotiators have, since Baghdad, proposed phone contact between deputy negotiators Helga Schmid and Ali Bagheri, “but have heard nothing,” he said.  Continue reading