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.)

UN Syria envoy Brahimi said to consider resigning


UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with the Russians last week and threatened to resign if they did not get the Syrian regime to seriously negotiate.

Russian diplomats in the meeting said they would like to have another round of Syria peace talks in Geneva, a western official told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

Brahimi responded, what’s the point, if the Syrian regime delegation is only going to insult the opposition delegation, as it did at the last two rounds of talks, the western official, speaking not for attribution, said. The Russians said they did not have as much influence over the Syrian regime as some observers think, and Brahimi said that he thought they did have some, and that they should use it, the official described.

“I would not hold my breath for Geneva,” the western official said, referring to another round of Syria peace talks anytime soon.

The deadlocked Syria diplomatic process comes amid a deepening rift between its chief cosponsors, the US and Russia, over Russia’s de facto occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Brahimi met with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Wednesday. But Brahimi did not speak to reporters after the meeting, and the State Department said it did not yet have information on what was said. Update: Kerry and Brahimi discussed the status of the Geneva talks at their meeting Wednesday, a State Department official told Al-Monitor Thursday. “The talks are still on recess,” the official said. “We look forward to JSR Brahimi’s briefing to the Security Council in closed consultations on March 13.”

Kerry also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, and they were due to meet again in Rome on Thursday.

“We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with the Ukrainians, in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it, and overcome the crisis,” Kerry told reporters after his day of meetings in Paris.

“All parties agreed today that it is important to try to resolve these issues through dialogue,” Kerry said. “I don’t believe..any of us are served by greater or further confrontation.  And also, we met today to discuss these issues because we cannot and will not allow the integrity of the sovereignty of the country of Ukraine to be violated and for those violations to go unanswered.”

If Brahimi quits as the UN/Arab League special envoy, a possible candidate to succeed him is former Kuwaiti foreign minister Shaikh Mohammad Al Sabah, Gulf News reported Wednesday.

Brahimi is already the second joint UN/Arab League special Syria envoy to consider resigning. His predecessor Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, quit in frustration in the summer of 2012, shortly after the first round of Geneva talks was held.

“Yes, he has threatened to resign, but that isn’t new,” a U.S. official told Al-Monitor Wednesday of Brahimi. “But I suspect he will persist.”

“I don’t want to speak to what his intentions may or may not be,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department Wednesday about whether Brahimi is resigning.  “Obviously, we have confidence in him and he has done a great job convening the beginning of the Geneva process.  There are many paths and many routes that we are pursuing at the same time as it relates to diplomacy in Syria.”

Separately, the United States informed Syria’s mission to the United Nations last month that Syrian diplomats posted there will be confined to within 25 miles of New York, the State Department said Wednesday. A U.S. official said the decision to restrict Syrian diplomats’ movement to the New York area had been in the works for several months, and was not related to the breakdown in talks in recent weeks.

Meantime, Brahimi’s deputy in Damascus, Mokhtar Lamani, resigned on Monday, Al-Arabiya reported.

US Syria envoy Robert Ford also retired last week after serving thirty years as a US diplomat, the State Department announced last Friday (February 28). Daniel Rubenstein, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan and US Consul General in Jerusalem will be tapped to succeed him as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor previously reported.

“I am very, very sorry and I apologize to the Syrian people,” Brahimi told journalists in Geneva last month after the second round of Syria peace talks concluded with no future meeting set, as the Syrian regime side refused to discuss a political transition. The Syrian peoples’ “hopes .. were very, very high here, that something will happen here.”

(Photo of UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva in January by Reuters.)

Syria parties to meet in same room, ‘understand what is at stake’: Brahimi

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Geneva, Switzerland__ The United Nations’ Syria envoy announced that Syria’s two bitterly divided parties have agreed to sit down together in the same room Saturday for the first time, after refusing to do so today, and that he was cautiously encouraged by the discussions he had with the two sides separately over the past two days.

“Tomorrow, [the two sides] have agreed to meet in the same room,” Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian diplomat who serves as the joint UN/Arab League envoy for Syria, told journalists at a press conference at the Palais des Nations Friday.

“We never expected it to be easy, but I think the two parties understand what is at stake,” Brahimi said. “Their country is in very bad shape.”

Brahimi said both the Syrian government and opposition delegations had agreed to endorse an effort to seek a UN Security Council resolution, that would call for the international community to support the implementation of the Geneva 1 communique. The consenses document, reached at a July 2012 meeting of world powers, called for the formation of a transitional governing body to be formed, by mutual consent between the Syrian parties, and which would have full executive authority.

Brahimi downplayed, however, the daunting task of clarifying ‘ambiguities’, as he put it, in the parties’ differing interpretations of provisions of the Geneva 1 document. But he made no pretense of what a long, tough road it will be to try to bring the parties to a political resolution of the conflict that has killed over 100,000 people.

“We knew it would be difficult, …. complicated,” he said. “In our business, certainty is a very rare commodity. ”

He said the negotiators will discuss humanitarian issues such as localized ceasefires and detainee releases, but in parallel, not in place of, the thornier issue of a political transition and formation of a transition governing body, Brahimi stressed.

Western diplomats later said the two sides are expected to discuss as early as Saturday a possible agreement that would allow for rapid humanitarian access to the besieged Syrian city of Homs. “We are going for a quick win, ” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution Friday, said. Talk about a transitional body could be on the agenda in as soon as two days time. Brahimi is mindful that he had to move on the transition, a diplomat said.

Brahimi, speaking to journalists Friday, said he envisioned that the parties might continue talking here in Geneva through the end of next week, before returning to the region for consultations, and hopefully later resuming negotiations in the weeks ahead.

The United States said it welcomed Brahimi’s announcement that the two sides will meet Saturday in the same room. “Such a meeting is a positive step forward in what we expect will be a long and complicated process, ” a senior US official said, adding “you should not perceive every obstacle or challenge that arises throughout the process as a deal-breaker or a collapse.”

Syria opposition announces negotiating team as peace talks get underway

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Geneva, Switzerland __ UN-mediated Syrian peace talks got underway here Friday, and are currently expected to continue into the weekend, western diplomats said.

UN/Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met separately with the two Syrian regime and opposition delegations on Friday. A meeting with both sdes and Brahimi in the same room, originally expected by some to take place Friday, may now occur on Saturday, the westerm diplomats said.

“Brahimi delayed the trilateral meeting planned for this morning to allow for more preparation,” a senior U.S. administration official said Friday. “Our understanding is that …he still plans to meet with the regime and the opposition together.”

“This is the beginning of a negotiation process, and as today has shown, expect ups and downs as it proceeds,” the US diplomat said. “What is important is that the Geneva II process continues.”

This will be a “step by step” process, another western diplomat said late Thursday. “The aim” on the delicate first day of talks “is to avoid walking outs ” by either side.

In one seemingly positive sign, the Syrian opposition coalition, ahead of meeting with Brahimi Friday, formally announced the members of its official negotiating team.

Syrian National Coalition President Ahmad Jarba is the head of the Syrian Coalition negotiator delegation in Geneva 2, a spokesperson for the group said. Mr. Hadi Bahra will lead the negotiation.

Other members of the Syrian National Coalition negotiating delegation, as announced by the team’s spokesman Dr. Louay Safi, are below the jump.

Continue reading

UN sending invites to Geneva II Syria peace talks; no decision yet on Iran


The United Nations on Monday announced that it was formally sending out invitations to a long-delayed Syria peace conference to be convened in Switzerland starting January 22.

To date, there has been no decision on whether Iran should be invited, a spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said Monday, adding that the invite list had been determined at a meeting between US, Russian and UN officials December 20th.

“The Secretary-General is in favor of inviting Iran, but discussions between the initiating States have not produced final results yet,” Mr. Ban’s spokesperson said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet next week (January 13) to decide if Iran should be invited to attend, the State Department and UN said.

Kerry said Sunday, as the US has previously, that Iran could come to the Syria peace conference if it formally endorsed the Geneva 1 communique which calls for the formation of a transition body that has full executive authority. But short of that, Kerry suggested that he and his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, are more focused on trying to negotiate a nuclear deal.

“Iran could participate very easily if they would simply accept publicly the Geneva I premise on which Geneva II is based,” Kerry told journalists at a press conference in Jerusalem Sunday (January 5).  “That has been the premise of organizing this. …We are going to implement Geneva I, which calls for a transition government by mutual consent with full executive authority; and if Iran doesn’t support that, it’s very difficult to see how they’re going to be ‘a ministerial partner’ in the process.”

“Everybody is happy to have Iran be helpful,” Kerry said. “But we have a huge piece of business on the table with Iran right now to complete the task of the implementation language and get moving with respect to the negotiations on their own nuclear program.”

“We are not begging to be invited,” Zarif told Al-Monitor in an interview in September. ‘If they ask us to go, we will go, without any conditions, and we do not accept any conditions.”

International talks will convene in Montreux, Switzerland January 22, the UN statement said. Then talks for the Syrian participants, facilitated by UN/Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, will move to the UN’s Palais des Nations in Geneva starting January 24th.

“The Secretary-General views the conference as a unique opportunity for ending the violence and ensuring that peace can be restored,” the UN statement said “At the core of this effort is the establishment of a transitional governing body based on mutual consent.”

(Photo: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and UN/Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. File photo: Reuters)

P5+1 turns focus to implementing Iran nuclear deal

Western diplomats expressed confidence about Iran sticking to the terms of an interim nuclear accord signed in Geneva last month as they met to discuss implementing the agreement and the process going forward for negotiating an end state deal.

The diplomatic consultations come ahead of a technical meeting between diplomats from Iran and six world powers in Vienna next week that will focus on implementing the November 24th accord.

“I think it will hold, because it’s in Iran’s interest for it to hold,” Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the PBS News Hour Wednesday (Dec. 4). “Iran is looking for some economic relief. There’s very little in this agreement, but it is the first step to a comprehensive agreement which will give them the economic relief they are looking for.”

“We are discussing 6 or 7 parameters that have to be crystallized into the common position of the P5+1,” a senior western official, speaking not for attribution, said Thursday, of the diplomatic consultations among the six world powers. The current priority is “implementation of the Nov. 24 agreement and deciding on a process.”

In terms of implementing the Phase 1 deal, “there are obvious facts to be confirmed by the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA – stopping 20 percent, converting half the stockpile… enhanced monitoring,” the senior western official said.

Secretary of State John Kerry and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton discussed that process for implementing the Iran deal when they met in Brussels earlier this week. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Under Secretary Sherman were scheduled to meet with French political director Jacques Audibert  on Thursday, the State Department schedule indicated. The British non-resident charge to Iran Ajay Sharma, until recently the UK’s deputy political director, was also in Washington for consultations Thursday, after traveling to Iran earlier this week, diplomatic sources said.

Burns has been leading a bilateral channel with Iran that gained momentum after the August inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani,  Al-Monitor first reported last month (November 24). Sherman leads the US negotiations between the P5+1 and  Iran. The bilateral discussions between Iran and the United States have focused almost exclusively on the nuclear issue and fed back into the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, US officials stressed, though the issue of Americans held in Iran has also been raised.

“All of the issues that arose in that private bilateral conversation also arose in the P5+1,” Sherman told PBS. “And I think very effectively the P5+1 used our bilateral channel and other bilateral discussions that were going on with other partners to get to this agreement.”

European Union foreign ministers are scheduled to meet on December 16 to discuss possibly suspending some EU sanctions against Iran for a period of six months as part of the first phase agreement reached in Geneva on November 24th.

The US administration has urged Congress to hold off on passing new sanctions on Iran–even if the sanctions would not come into effect until after six months if an end state deal is not reached. Continue reading

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.)

Diplomats seek to narrow gaps to close Iran nuclear deal

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Geneva__ Diplomats from six world powers and Iran said today (Nov. 20) that they would try to narrow gaps to reach a nuclear agreement, but didn’t yet know if they would succeed by the end of this week.

“I sensed a real commitment…from both sides,” a senior western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said Wednesday. “Will it happen? We will see. But as always the devil is in the details.”

“We know what the remaining gaps are, let’s go to work, let’s see if we can get there in a way that is balanced, where all parties feel like this is a good agreement that heads us in the direction of the comprehensive agreement,” a senior U.S. Administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists here Wednesday, on the eve of the third round of high level talks here in under five weeks.

Amid unusually heavy diplomatic and police security, diplomats did not deny the possibility that if agreement is reached in the coming days, that P5+1 foreign ministers might come to Geneva for a signing ceremony, possibly as early as Friday.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is “open to going if it would continue to help narrow the gaps,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told journalists at the Dtate Department press briefing Wednesday. “He has not made a decision at this point to go, but obviously, we’re in close touch with the negotiating team and will make a decision, clearly, in the next 36 hours here.”

The main Geneva hotel used by the diplomat delegations kicked out several people with confirmed reservations Wednesdsy in seeming anticipation of more diplomatic arrivals and their security and press entourages.

Events began Wednesday with internal meetings among the P5+1 political directors. Then Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hosted European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her team for a working lunch at the Iranian mission that western diplomats described as very positive.

“There is a sense of strong commitment on both sides but important differences need to be narrowed down,” the western diplomat described the lunch meeting with the Iranians.

The six western powers and Iran then held a very brief plenary session at the Palais des Nations -just ten minutes–before breaking for a series Iran bilateral meetings, including with the Russians and the Europeans. Those meetings ran long, and a brief bilateral meeting between Iranian negotiators, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, and the US team, led by Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, was held, a senior State Department official said, adding they expected to meet again on Thursday.

“We did have a very brief bilateral meeting at the Palais des Nations with the Iranians [Wednesday] evening,” the State Department official said Thuraday. “Because other meetings ran long, the Iranians had to leave to go see their Foreign Minister [Zarif] for consultations, so we will find more time during the day today to continue those discussions.”

Of the remaining gaps, the western diplomat indicated they mostly concerned technical details in the first phase of the agreement, involving issues such as timelines.

“The deal has to be sustainable, spelled out in detail,” the western diplomat said. “It is important to have clear understanding on technical elements in order to ensure a robust and viable agreement. This needs to be done in a proper way – we will take the time we need.”

But the official seemed taken aback by a query if such details could take til the end of the year to sort out, saying they wanted to finish it well before then.

Iran nuclear deal close, US officials say

US negotiators say they feel they are close to finalizing a nuclear agreement with Iran for the first time in a decade.

“For the first time in nearly a decade we are getting close to [reaching agreement on] the first step towards a comprehensive agreement that would stop Iran’s nuclear program from advancing, and put time on the clock to reach a negotiated agreement that addresses all of our concerns,” a senior U.S. administration official told journalists at a background briefing at the State Department Friday.

“I don’t know if we will get agreement,” in Geneva next week, the U.S. official said. “It’s quite possible we can. But there are tough issues to negotiate.” The reason the last meeting ended in Geneva at 1am last weekend was that Iran, after receiving the consensus P5+1 draft proposal only late in the evening of November 9th, “felt it needed to look at the document and come back to the negotiations.”

Under the P5+1 proposed deal that six world powers and Iran will meet again to discuss next week in Geneva (November 20-22), Iran would agree to halt the expansion of its nuclear program for six months. Among the measures the first phase would address: suspend 20% enrichment, neutralize the 20% stockpile, hold steady the stockpile of 3.5% enrichment by oxidizing any more accrued, not install more centrifuges and not operate ones already installed but not yet enriching, including the more advanced IR-2Ms; stop building fuel assemblies for the unfinished Arak heavy water facility, and allow increased inspections and monitoring at enrichment facilities, for a period of six months, according to press reports and what sources familiar with the deal under discussion told Al-Monitor. US officials briefing Friday would not confirm the details of the P5+1 proposal.

In exchange, Iran would receive under $10 billion in sanctions relief, including about $3 billion in hard currency assets frozen in banks abroad that would be metered out each month depending on compliance, as well as the suspension of sanctions on auto sales, petrochemicals, gold and precious metals, as well as aircraft parts, sources said.

During the six month first phase, negotiators would then seek to reach a comprehensive agreement under which all of the outstanding concerns about Iran’s nuclear program would be addressed, in exchange for the lifting of proliferation related samctions, including on oil exports and those restricting Iran’s access to the international banking system. Iran also seeks language in the accord that would permit it to pursue domestic enrichment for a verifiably peaceful, civilian nuclear energy program as part of an end state deal.

The agreement would provide “unprecedented monitoring and verification” of Iran’s nuclear program, the senior U.S. official said. “The voluntary steps [in the first phase proposal] are good things in and of themselves. But the objective is to reach a comprehensive agreement that puts time on the clock, extends breakout time, shortens the time it would take to detect [breakout], and make the world, the US and Israel more secure.”

The US official acknowledged that Israel strongly opposes a confidence building step that would provide Iran any sanctions relief, even one that would by some estimates double Iran’s nuclear breakout time in the first phase alone.

“When it comes to our Israeli friends, and Israel’s security is foremost for us, it is worth noting we share exactly the same objective,” that Iran should not produce a nuclear weapon, the US official said. “We both believe diplomacy should be given a chance, but we diverge on tactical [steps]. We believe there should be a first step. We completely share Israel’s desire for a comprehensive agreement. But we don’t think it’s possible” without a first-step agreement.

“We think keeping the pressure on Iran is critical, and we are not asking Congress to lift sanctions,” the US official said. “We are asking Congress to take a pause” in adding new ones. “We need to see if they [the Iranians] are serious. If it appears they are not, [or] if they don’t comply, Congress can put new sanctions on in a nanosecond.”

The official said she doesn’t know if the administration’s appeal to Congress to pause new sanctions through the end of the year will succeed, or if the Senate, pressed by Israel and pro-Israel lobby groups, would move new Iran sanctions legislation in the Banking committee or to attach to the National Defense Authorization Act.

“Where Israel is concerned, I have tremendous respect for the prime minister [Netanyahu] and…I understand he will say or do what he needs to do,” the US official said. “We may not see eye to eye tactically, but we stand shoulder to shoulder in ensuring Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. The President [Obama] has done more to ensure Israel’s security than any other president. We have a close bond. I expect we’ll get through this.”

Iran FM Zarif ‘Hopeful’ on Nuclear Agreement; Kerry to join talks

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Geneva__ Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said his team will draft the text of a framework agreement with representatives of six world powers, the P5+1, on Friday as negotiations seemed to gather such pace that there was talk that an agreement could even be signed on Friday or Saturday. Amid signs of rapid progress, US Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Geneva Friday to join the talks, a US official said.

“Secretary Kerry will travel to Geneva, Switzerland on Friday at the invitation of EU High Representative Ashton in an effort to help narrow differences in negotiations,” a senior State Department official told Al-Monitor late Thursday.

“We are talking about a framework agreement that includes three steps: objectives, end game, and a first step,” Zarif told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, one of a series he gave in his Geneva hotel at the conclusion of the first day of a new round of nuclear talks that were stunning for their sense of momentum after years of no progress.

“If there is political will, it is not so difficult,” Zarif said. “We are hopeful we can do it. My preference is to be able to move forward quickly.”

“We have to see,” he said. “It’s too early to judge.”

Zarif said significant progress on the outlines of a framework deal had been made at meetings over the past month, including at technical talks in Vienna last week. “In the course of the past three weeks…the ingredients of each step have been more clearly defined,” Zarif said.

“Maybe we are sill at the recipe stage,” he said, regarding what reciprocal steps the six powers might offer Iran in exchange for Iranian steps to restrain its nuclear program in the first phase of an envisioned two-step deal. “We know the ingredients, and the right amount of each ingredient in the recipe.”

On Thursday, Zarif had breakfast with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, then headed the Iranian delegation at a brisk, 45-minute plenary meeting with diplomats from the P5+1. Then the Iranian team, headed by Zarif’s deputy Abbas Araghchi, proceeded to hold four, one-hour meetings, first with three European powers, then with the Russians, then with the U.S. team, led by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and then with the Chinese.

“We had a good plenary,” in which all the delegations expressed the desire “to find common ground in order to move forward,” Zarif said. “Then we had rather long bilateral discussions.”

Next comes “starting serious draft writing,” Zarif said. “We know the challenge: just putting on paper all these discussions…We will already have made good progress. Whether it will be enough to sign a joint communique in the afternoon, it all depends on how much progress” is made Friday.

Asked if the sense of momentum towards a framework deal after years of little or no progress was an illusion, Zarif said he didn’t think so, but cautioned there were still many potential obstacles.

“I think we’re on the right track,” he said. “It’s a very difficult stage we are in–trying to put …that which was said [sometimes] informally [in meetings] on paper, to have consensus.”

“We should not prejudge the outcome,” Zarif said. “The general trend is positive.”

An hour or so after Zarif spoke Thursday, lead US negotiator Wendy Sherman, returning to the diplomats’ Geneva hotel, had an impromptu tete a tete with Iranian deputy foreign minister Araghchi, after encountering him in front of the elevator. The two diplomats spoke for a few minutes in a hallway off the lobby, before Sherrman went up.

Araghchi earlier told Al-Monitor in a brief interview that his team’s one hour meeting with Sherman and the US negotiating team Thursday was “very useful and productive.”

A U.S. official, speaking not for attribution Thursday, told Al-Monitor that from the U.S. perspective, the talks made real headway in the afternoon meetings.

(Top Photo: Lead US Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, arrives for Iran nuclear talks at the United Nations in Geneva Thursday November 7, 2013, accompanied by her deputy and veteran State Department arms control advisor James Timbie. Credit: Derrick Bridiers, US Mission in Geneva Flickr account. Bottom photo: US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman talks with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi at the Geneva Intercontinental Hotel after an impromptu meeting in front of the elevators Thursday evening November 7, 2013, as negotiations towards a framework deal seemed to be making headway. By ISNA.)

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