US, Iran hold ‘intensive, useful’ talks as negotiations intensify

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Washington, D.C.__ U.S. and Iranian nuclear negotiators have held two days of “intensive.. useful” talks, but gaps still remain, Iranian officials said Tuesday.

The talks, lasting 12 hours over two days in Geneva, were “intensive…but useful,” and “held in a good atmosphere,” an Iranian diplomat told Al-Monitor after talks ended Tuesday. “Gaps are still there. Consultations will continue.”

The US-Iran meetings “were business-like, and we covered all the issues that we have been discussing so far in Vienna,” a second Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “The exchange helped us better understand each others’ positions.”

“After these meetings in Geneva and bilateral meetings with the French, Russians and the Germans in the next few days, we hope we will be better prepared to start the talks next week in Vienna,” the second Iranian official said.

Iranian negotiators are due to hold a bilateral meeting with French counterparts in Geneva on Wednesday, and with Russia in Rome on Thursday and Friday. Iran will hold a bilateral meeting with Germany’s political director in Tehran Sunday, ahead of the next round of final deal talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna June 16-20.

The US delegation to Geneva, led by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, has not yet publicly commented on the bilateral consultations with Iran, which were held at an undisclosed location. (Journalists in Geneva said they believed the talks were being held at Geneva’s President Wilson hotel, where the US delegation was thought to be staying, but the hotel would not confirm that.)

State Department and European Union spokespeople stressed that the series of bilateral meetings underway this week were all in support of the comprehensive deal negotiations being carried out by the P5+1 under the coordination of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The talks are now intensifying, they said, as the parties aim to see if they can reach a final accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires, or will need to be extended for up to another six months.

“The E3/EU+3’s diplomatic efforts to reach a comprehensive solution are now intensifying,” Michael Mann, Ashton’s spokesman, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “They have always taken place at different levels and in different formats and included bilateral meetings in support of the central E3/EU+3 nuclear negotiations led by [High Representative] Ashton.”

“We’ve always said that we would engage the Iranians bilaterally if it can help advance our efforts, of course acting in total coordination with the P5+1 and the EU,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told journalists at the State Department press briefing Monday.

“We also said that there was going to be an intensification of diplomatic efforts, particularly getting closer to July 20th,” Harf said “If we’re going to seriously test whether we can reach a diplomatic solution here, we need to engage in as much active diplomacy as possible.”

Meantime, France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday that it would be hard to close wide gaps over the size of Iran enrichment capacity in a final deal by next month.

“We are still hitting a wall on one absolutely fundamental point which is the number of centrifuges which allow enrichment,” Fabius told France Inter radio Tuesday, Reuters reported. “We say that there can be a few hundred centrifuges, but the Iranians want thousands so we’re not in the same framework.”

The timing of Fabius’ public comments, as the US held the first lengthy, one on one talks with Iran since last year, raised some eyebrows in Washington.

Asked about them, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Tuesday the focus should remain on the “behind the scenes” talks, not “public demands.”

“Subconsciously, [Fabius] hates when [the] US-Iran meet bilaterally for the usual French reasons,” Jeremy Shapiro, a Brookings fellow in foreign policy studies, told Al-Monitor. “More consciously, he doesn’t trust the US as negotiators and believes he plays an important role in shoring them up and ensuring that they don’t give away the store.”

France’s new political director Nicolas de Riviere will take part in bilateral discussions with Iranian negotiators in Geneva on Wednesday, Araghchi told Iran’s IRNA news agency.

(Photo of Iran’s delegation, including Deputy Foreign Ministers Abbas Araghchi and Majid Ravanchi ,and the head of its expert team Hamid Baeedinejad, heading to the Geneva talks on June 9, 2014, from Iran MFA website.)

Progress, but no deal yet, as Iran talks conclude

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Geneva__ Talks between Iran and six world powers made progress in narrowing differences but did not yield an agreement, despite raised hopes after US Secretary of State John Kerry and other P5+1 foreign ministers flew in over the past two days, in seeming anticipation of a breakthrough.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at a first-ever joint press conference at the conclusion of talks, put an upbeat spin on the past three days’ proceedings, saying significant progress had been made and announcing they would meet again in Geneva on Nov. 20-21, this time at the political director level.

But France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius preempted their press conference, breaking protocol to announce, ahead of Ashton, that they had not reached an agreement.

Earlier Saturday, Fabius announced that he did not accept the draft nuclear accord, abandoning the usual efforts by the P5+1 to project unity and keep details of their internal discussions and disagreements behind closed doors.

“There is an initial text that we do not accept,” Fabius told France’s Inter radio Saturday morning, according to a translation provided by a French reporter here. “There are several points that we are not satisfied with.. If those questions will no be addressed it will not be possible [to reach agreement]. I want a deal but we have to be careful not to be played for fools.”

France’s concerns were reported to center on wanting Iran to halt work on the Arak heavy water facility during the negotiations, as well as on Iran’s stockpile of 20% uranium.

Kerry, speaking after the talks early Sunday, did not explain why a deal couldn’t be closed here, but said he thought an agreement is within reach.

“We came to Geneva to narrow differences, and I can tell you without any exaggeration we not only narrowed differences and clarified those that remain, but we made significant progress,” Kerry said at a press conference after the talks. “There’s no question in my mind that we are closer now, as we leave Geneva, than we were when we came, and that with good work and good faith over the course of the next weeks, we can in fact secure our goal.”

He said the negotiations had been “conducted with mutual respect, in a very serious and civil way.”

Kerry did not mention his unprecedented over eight hours of meetings with Iran’s Zarif over the past two days. But there were signs of a growing sense of ease and normalcy to US-Iran interactions at the talks that did not exist before he and Zarif met on the sidelines of the UN in New York in September.

Iranian diplomats said the meetings between Zarif, Kerry, and Ashton and their top deputies had been good and productive, and expressed optimism about prospects to finalize a nuclear accord in the upcoming weeks.

“I think it was natural, when we start dealing with the details, that there will be differences in views,” Zarif, speaking in English, said at the press conference with Ashton. “I am not disappointed at all, it was a good meeting.”

Western diplomats did not deny frustration over Fabius’ behavior at the talks, but did not disparage the concerns he raised, but rather that he raised them publicly–thus giving the impression that it was the western powers that were divided over the text, and doing so in a way that diminished prospects for a deal here.

France believes that Iran should halt construction of the Arak heavy water reactor during the first phase of a nuclear agreement, which is envisioned to last for six months, during which a comprehensive deal would, in theory, be hammered out. Some other powers believe that Arak could be part of an end state deal, since it is not due to come on line until late 2014.

A former western diplomat said over the past year, France’s political director Jacques Audibert “has repeatedly assured the U.S. side that, if there is a deal in the offing, the French will not stand in the way, their hard-line posturing in past months notwithstanding,” he said, calling it “very surprising…the French are the holdup at this moment.”

But western diplomats privately did not dispute the basic narrative that was the case, and their disappointment.

Kerry, asked at the press conference if the P5+1 had been blindsided by the French position here, answered indirectly, saying the delegations had arrived with a draft document that had some bracketed text that the parties expected to further negotiate on here.

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Diplomat says P5+1 divided over draft Iran accord

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Geneva__ Iran and world powers were supposed to resume ministerial level talks here Saturday morning but the western powers in the P5+1 are divided and were meeting among themselves, a senior diplomat involved in the talks told al-Monitor in an interview Saturday.

“It is obvious, there are serious differences” among the P5+1, the senior diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said. “We were supposed to restart negotiations at 8:30am, but the western side is divided.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry was supposed to resume meetings with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Saturday morning after a five hour meeting Friday that diplomats described as productive. But instead, the State Department said Saturday that Kerry would first meet with Ashton and three European counterparts, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Ashton was then scheduled to meet with Fabius and Zarif.

“In fact, the French are the big upset in the way of an agreement,” the senior diplomat said, on condition his name or nationality not be named.

He said there is a joint P5+1 draft text of a framework agreement the parties have been working on. Good progress was being made, including in the five hour trilateral meeting between Kerry, Zarif and Ashton Friday.

But the French say it is not our text, the diplomat said, a point which Fabius himself subsequently confirmed.

“There is an initial text that we do not accept,” Fabius told France’s Inter radio Saturday morning, according to a translation provided by a French reporter here. “There are several points that we are not satisfied with,” concerning the Arak heavy water facility and Iran’s stockpiles of 20% uranium. “How can we go down to 5% enrichment that is less dangerous. If those questions will no be addressed it will not be possible [to reach agreement]. I wants a deal but we have to be careful not to be played for fools.”

“The question of the Iranian nuclear issue is very important for international security,” Fabius told journalists here Saturday after leaving a meeting with Ashton, Kerry and his European counterparts. “But there are still the important points on which we have to work. I still hope there will be an agreement, but there are still things we have to” resolve.

France’s concerns were reported to center on wanting Iran to halt work on the Arak heavy water facility during the negotiations, as well as on Iran’s stockpile of 20% uranium.

Another P5+1 diplomat told Al-Monitor Saturday that no one is telling the diplomats here what is going on, describing the situation as ‘outrageous.’

Asked about the complaints of a chaotic situation, a spokesperson for Ashton said all of the parties here are working very hard and are making progress.

“The E3+3 continues to work together intensively to make progress on the Iranian nuclear file,” Michael Mann said. “There are a number of meetings going on. And regular debriefings. ”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived here Saturday around 11am to join the talks. He decided to come only late Friday, concerned about an unspecified hitch that had developed in the talks in the afternoon, another diplomat said late Friday.

The Chinese foreign minister is also expected to arrive later Saturday afternoon, reports citing Chinese state radio said.

After talks with Kerry and the Europeans Saturday morning, Kerry, Zarif and Ashton were to resume trilateral talks. It’s still unclear if an agreement will be reached here at this meeting which has extended into a third day, or if talks to sign a possible framework deal will require a subsequent meeting or meetings.

(Photo of US Secretary of State John Kerry, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and his deputies Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht-Ravanchi, by Fars News. Also pictured, US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and nonproliferation James Timbie; and Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid.)