Iran FM Zarif outlines ideas to exit nuclear dispute

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Istanbul __ Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Friday he believes Iran and six world powers should accept each other’s chief objectives as their own in order to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

“On the nuclear issue, I believe the problem we have faced in the last ten years is we have both seen the nuclear issue as a zero sum game; we have articulated two seemingly opposing objectives, and each tried to make gains for one objective seemingly at the expense of the others,” Zarif told an audience of Middle East nonproliferation specialists convened in Istanbul Friday by the Pugwash conference on nuclear disarmament.

“The result has been that ten years ago, Iran had less than 160 centrifuges spinning, now it has over 18,000,” Zarif, speaking in English, said. While ten years ago, “Iran’s economy was prospering, now sanctions are hurting the wrong segment of the population. I hope we have come to understand that approach was wrong.”

Zarif said he proposed, at meetings with the P5+1 in New York and Geneva the past two months, a new approach: that Iran accepts the West’s objective that Iran never have a nuclear weapon, and that the West accept Iran’s objective that it have a peaceful nuclear energy program that includes domestic enrichment, with mechanisms to verify it not be used for military purposes.

Iran’s nuclear know-how and technology are now “homegrown,” Zarif said, to explain why he thinks it in the West’s interest to accept Iranian enrichment. You “cannot kill all our scientists and kill our program. …You cannot destroy the technology. How to ensure [the program] is peaceful: allow it operate in a transparent fashion; you cannot push it under the rug.”

Asked whether he believes President Obama would be able to sell Congress on an Iran nuclear deal that includes sanctions relief, Zarif said he would leave American domestic politics to the Americans to sort out: “I do not interfere in American domestic politics.” Both sides have public opinion on their side to pursue a negotiated settlement, he said he believes, but formidable hardline constituencies to contend with at home as well.

“I believe leaders need to show leadership,” Zarif said. “I think experience shows, once there is a good deal, the US president will be able to sell it, and I think we will be able to sell it too.”

Zarif spoke here, at a presidential palace overlooking the Bosporous on the Asian side of the city, on a panel with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, on his first official visit to Turkey since assuming the post of foreign minister in the Hassan Rouhani administration in August. While Zarif and Davutoglu had warm words for each other, the two nations’ differences on Syria were apparent. However, they agreed that the US-Russian agreement that led to Syria’s decision to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles and join the chemical weapons ban was a positive development, and urged that it be a first step towards a broader agreement towards ridding the entire Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.

“I agree with my good friend and brother, Javad-bey,” Davutoglu said. “Something good happens with the Syria chemical weapons ban, at least the process has started.”

Zarif, whose back seemed much improved from when he appeared at a press conference in Geneva last month in a wheel chair, was due to travel on to Ankara Friday for meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu. He is slated to travel to Paris next week, ahead of leading the Iranian delegation to the next round of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, in Geneva on November 7-8th.

(Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif speaks at a press conference in Istanbul on Friday, November 1, 2013. Associated Press.)

US and Iran Speak ‘Same Language’ in Nuclear Talks

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Geneva__ Western and Iranian diplomats hailed a new pace, candor and mutual will to try to forge a process to resolve international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, but acknowledged they were at the beginning of a still complex and difficult negotiation whose success is not guaranteed.

“The good news, we are getting to a place where one can imagine we could possibly have a process that could lead to an agreement,” a senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists Wednesday at the end of two days of nuclear negotiations here, the first since the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

“I have never had such intense, detailed, straight-forward, candid conversations with the Iran delegation before,” the American official said. “The discussions took place in English…the pace of discussions was much better. It creates the ability to have a back and forth.”

“There are [still] serious differences.” the U.S. official said. We “got more today than we have ever gotten before, but there’s still a whole lot more we have to get.”

“Both sides are serious, both sides want to find common ground,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking in English, told journalists at a press conference at the conclusion of talks here. “Iran is interested in resolving this issue.”

Zarif, at the Geneva talks, “presented an outline of a plan as a proposed basis for negotiations, which is being carefully considered” by the six world powers, Catherine Ashton, European Union foreign policy chief, told a press conference here Wednesday, part of a rare joint statement by Iran and the so-called P5+1.

The two sides agreed to meet again in Geneva Nov. 7-8, and said that technical experts on both the nuclear and sanctions issues would be meeting before that.

The US official suggested that it would probably be premature for P5+1 foreign ministers and US Secretary of State John Kerry to lead delegations to the next Geneva meeting in just three weeks time, given that there are still so many complex technical, and more fundamental, issues to resolve. The new Iranian leadership had previously expressed the conviction that progress could be made more quickly at the ministerial level. But Zarif on Wednesday struck a diplomatic tone, expressing satisfaction with how the negotiations had been conducted here, often by deputies, and said foreign ministers could be summoned when needed.

“We are prepared to meet at the ministerial level whenever necesaary,” Zarif said. “I am content with the last few days, how colleagues were able to conduct the negotiations…it was a serious and substantive negotiation. …But I think at a certain stage, [the negotiations] will need more political direction.”

The two sides also agreed not to publicly disclose the details of the Iranian proposal, given the sensitivity of the issues involved, both in Iran and foreign capitals.

“The details require serious and in depth negotiations,” Zarif said. “We will be doing the negotiations in the negotiating room, not [in public, and] through the press. The seriousness and importance of the details requires us to be very vigilant.”

One party not at the talks that is unlikely to patiently await the details to be worked out before moving forward with new sanctions is Congress. The senior US official said she would be probably be briefing members behind closed doors in classified session upon her return.

“If we have what I call the high class problem of a verifiable and sound agreement that addresses all of the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and assures the world [Iran won’t get a nuclear weapon], I feel confident that everyone engaged in this process will support that outcome, including the U.S. Congress,” the American official said. “None of us want to undo the [sanctions architecture] in place before we have results.”

“Overall, there was modest progress,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran researcher at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “The very fact that the two sides are speaking the same language after all these years…..is the most we could expect from these two days of talks.”

Zarif conducted his press conference Wednesdsy, speaking in both fluent English and Persian, from a wheel chair, having traveled to Geneva with severe back pain, accompanied by a doctor. The American official said many of the diplomats here, fellow veterans of constant air travel and chronic back pain, had expressed their empathy to Zarif and recommended to him various remedies.

“Not one of us doesn’t have a back problem,” the US official said, saying Zarif had told them he had undergone an acupuncture treatment today. Diplomatic colleagues here offered him “books they thought he should read, things he might try. …We all have suffered.”

(Photo of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaking in Geneva October 16, 2013. By Reuters.)

Diplomats: Follow on Iran nuclear talks in Geneva in November

Geneva__ Nuclear negotiators from Iran and six world powers will hold follow on talks here in Geneva Nov. 7-8, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced here Wednesday at the conclusion of two days of what she called very intensive, substantive and forward-looking talks.

During two days of “substantive and forward looking negotiations,” Ashton said in a rare joint statement by the six powes and Iran, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad “Zarif presented the outline of a plan as a proposed basis for negotiotians which are being carefully considered by” the six powers.

The parties have agreed not to disclose the details of the Iranian proposal, both negotiators said.

“We sense that members of the 3+3 also have exhibited the necessary political will in order to move the process forward and now we have to get to the details,” Zarif, speaking in English, told journalists at a press conference at the conclusion of talks.

“The details require serious and in depth negotiations,” Zarif said, adding they will be doing the negotiations in the negotiating room and not through the press.

Iran would like the next meeting to be held at the foreign minister level, a western diplomat told al-Monitor Tuesday.

Diplomats from the P5+1 and Iran are wrapping up two days of talks here during which Iran presented a nuclear proposal that western officials called ‘very useful’ and detailed.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are expected to

The parties will meet “in a couple weeks in Geneva to give the P5+1 enough time to come with a response” to the nuclear proposal that Iran presented here this week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday.

“As I have said before, the negotiations are going to be difficult and will require a lot of time and focus,” he continued, writing in Persian. “You cannot have the expectation that without trust [the parties] will be able to reach an understanding in one meeting,” even one conducted in a positive atmosphere.

US on Iran talks: No one should expect breakthrough overnight

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Geneva_ Western diplomats said they were looking forward to hear the Iranian nuclear proposal but sought to lower expectations for any immediate breakthrough at Iran nuclear talks due to get underway here Tuesday.

“No one should expect a breakthrough overnight,” a senior U.S. administration official told journalists in a background briefing in Geneva Monday night. “We have to start somewhere and we hope to start here.”

“The chances of agreement being reached over the next two days is quite low-it’s quite complicated work, but if we can move forward actions that match tones and words,” that would be positive, the offiicial said.

“We hope the Iranians come to the table with a credible proposal,” the U.S. official continued. “We hope we can translate the more positive tone into agreement for how we all intend to move forward.”

Iran did not share its proposal with the P5+1 in advance of the talks, western diplomats said Monday–perhaps one reason for a cautioning on expectations for how much agreement can be achieved here this week.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his team had dinner with chief nuclear negotiator, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, at the Iranian ambassador’s residence here Monday night. Zarif did not present her the offer there, an Ashton aide told Al-Monitor.

Zarif is expected to present the Iranian proposal to diplomats from six world powers Tuesday morning at 9:30am. The talks are expected to continue through Wednesday.

International negotiatorss are looking for the Iranian proposal to address three core issues, the US official said.

“We will be looking for specific steps on specific core issues, including on the pace and scope of its enrichment program; the transparency of its overall nuclear program; and its stockpiles of enriched uranium,” the U.S. official said.

(Photo of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zariff arriving in Geneva by Fars News.)

Beyond US strikes, signs of intensifying UN diplomacy on Syria

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Even amid mounting signs the U.S. will soon conduct strikes in Syria, the White House made clear Tuesday that the purpose of the intervention would be limited and narrow, to uphold the universal prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. There were also signs of intensifying UN diplomacy behind the scenes to make way for a Syria peace conference in Geneva this fall.

“I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists at a White House press conference Tuesday. “They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.”

While “it is our firm conviction that Syria’s future cannot include Assad in power,” Carney continued, “this deliberation and the actions that we are contemplating are not about regime change.”

“We believe…that resolution of this conflict has to come through political negotiation and settlement,” Carney said.

Indeed, even as the U.S. advanced its public case for a limited air campaign in Syria, there were signs of intensifying United Nations preparations for a Geneva 2 Syria transition talks conference.

UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former top US diplomat, met with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif Monday on Syria, and reportedly urged Iran to be calm if there is US-led action on Syria.

“Mr. Feltman shared the U.N. position that Iran, given its influence and leadership in the region, has an important role to play and a responsibility in helping to bring the Syrian parties to the negotiating table,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said Tuesday, Reuters reported.

Feltman, in his meetings in Iran, discussed “the worsening situation on the ground in Syria, including the U.N.'s grave concerns about the potential use of chemical weapons and how the U.N. can work together with Iran and other states to end the bloodshed and suffering of the Syrian people,” Haq said.

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, meantime, is scheduled to give a news conference from Geneva on Wednesday. (Brahimi has reportedly reportedly moved his base to Geneva to prepare for the conference.)

Following Feltman's visit, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, notably, issued a strong call for the international community to uphold the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.

“Iran gives notice to international community to use all its might to prevent use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, esp. in Syria,” Rouhani wrote on his official Twitter account Tuesday, after noting, twice, that it is his only official English language Twitter feed, and that Iran has itself been the victim of chemical weapons attack, by Iraq in the 1980s.

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White House: UN needs immediate access to Syria site

The White House on Wednesday demanded that United Nations inspectors be given immediate access to a site near Damascus where Syrian opposition activists claimed hundreds were killed in an overnight nerve gas attack.

“If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the UN team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement Wednesday.

“We are working urgently to gather additional information,” Earnest said.

The allegations of a new chemical attack in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, came just two days after a UN chemical weapons inspection team arrived in Syria, after months of protracted negotiations. The White House on Wednesday joined the United Kingdom, France and Saudi Arabia in demanding that the inspectors be allowed immesiate, unfettered access to the site.

The United Nations Security Council was also expected to hold an emergency session on the new Syrian chemical claims on Wednesday.

The latest grim allegations came as the top US military officer said Syria’s divided rebels are not ready for U.S. military intervention to hasten the fall of Bashar al-Assad.

“Syria today is not about choosing between sides, but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a letter (.pdf) to House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Elliot Engel.

“It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor,” Dempsey continued in the letter, which is dated August 19th. “Today, they are not. … Violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends. We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context.”

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NPR’s Deborah Amos reports on Syria from front lines


We are “two and a half years into” the Syria war, “and not even half way” through, says Deborah Amos, veteran National Public Radio Middle East correspondent, who has covered the brutal conflict that has killed 100,000 Syrians, and made almost 2 million refugees. “Everyone has to get used to that.”

The conflict’s battle lines have shifted in recent months, suggesting Syrian regime forces are moving to carve out a “little Syria,” and ensure its access to supply lines in Lebanon, Amos said in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor Friday (August 2) during a break in the United States.

“What you've got now” is a battle between regime and rebel forces “for roads and access,” Amos said.  “It used to be for checkpoints and military installations. But now, the regime has to be sure it has access from Lebanon into Syria.” The rebels, meantime, “focus on access to Jordan and Turkey.”

“This is what the war’s about now,” Amos said, describing the virtual four “walls” of Little Syria as including Homs to the north, Palmyra to the east, the Lebanese border and coast to the West.

The road to the Geneva 2 peace conference may be long, Amos said, observing neither side wants to go to talks when the other side has the upper hand, but is unlikely to negotiate when strong. “So nobody is willing to negotiate.”

“I think Bashar [Assad] has changed his definition of winning,” Amos mused, noting his recent proclamations of the past weeks, joining of Instagram, and visit to Dariya, which his forces have not been entirely able to take from rebels. Continue reading

G-8 urges Syria peace conference, France says Iran’s Rouhani could attend


G-8 leaders pressed Tuesday for Syria transition talks to get underway in Geneva “as soon as possible,” but Russia and western powers remain divided on other key issues.

Meantime, in a shift, France said Tuesday it would be willing to have Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rouhani attend the Geneva II Syria peace conference, following the moderate’s surprise victory in Iran presidential elections last week.

“My position is that if he [Rouhani] can be useful, yes, he would be welcome” at the Geneva conference, French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, Agence France Press reported. France previously opposed Iran's attendance at the Geneva conference, while Russia has argued that Iran should be at the table.

A joint communique issued Tuesday by the G-8 powers-—the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia—”strongly” endorsed plans for the Syria peace conference to be held “as soon as possible,” to “implement fully the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012, which sets out a number of key steps beginning with agreement on a transitional governing body with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent,” the document states.

“We remain committed to achieving a political solution to the crisis based on a vision for a united, inclusive and democratic Syria,” it says.

The document calls for the al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front to leave Syria, but does not call on the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters from Syria. It also does not mention Bashar al-Assad even once.

American officials pointed to its call for a transition body with full executive authority to be established out of the Geneva meeting as an important area of Russian-western consensus, as well as its demand that Syria give the United Nations access to investigate alleged chemical weapons use.

“There’s agreement with the Russians that there needs to be a path to political transition, that the status quo is unacceptable, and what needs to be focused on is stability for the Syrian people,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department press briefing Tuesday.

“Our position… is there is no role for Assad in Syria,” Psaki said. “However, there is a [place] for those in the regime who are willing to accept the end of Assad’s reign and work for a better future for Syria.”

Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones are due to hold another preparatory meeting with Russian and UN officials next week in Geneva, the State Department said Tuesday. It wasn't clear if the conference would be held in July, or would be pushed back. Continue reading

Martin Indyk: ‘We’re at a tipping point’ in Syria


Doha, Qatar__“We’re at a tipping point in Syria,” Martin Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution and one of the architects of Middle East policy under former President Bill Clinton, told Al-Monitor in an interview in Doha Tuesday.

“I don’t know what President Obama will decide,” Indyk, speaking at the conclusion of the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, said, regarding reports the White House is meeting this week to consider possibly coming out in support of lethal aid to the Syria rebels.

“I think the objective now is to help the opposition stave off further defeats. The Iranians and Hezbollah have intervened in a dramatic way with troops and weapons and this has led to a total imbalance on the battlefield. This is external intervention to try to ensure Assad survives.

“There can’t be any political solution based on an agreement on a post-Assad transition if Assad thinks he is going to see victory,” Indyk, who served as the Clinton era envoy to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, said. “So we’re at a tipping point. We’ve got to tip the balance back the other way. […] Whether the British and French with our support, or our lead, it doesn’t matter, [if] that staves off defeat. That’s urgent.”

But any decision to provide lethal aid and organizational support to the Syrian rebels “has to be part of an overall strategy which begins with an effort to achieve a political solution,” Indyk continued. “Geneva provides a framework for that. We can’t get to Geneva if Assad thinks he’s winning on the battlefield.”

“What happens on the battlefield determines what happens in the conference room,” Indyk said. “If [the conflict is] stalemated, [it’s more likely] you can get a political agreement.”

Indyk said he doesn’t believe Russia gave a green light to the recent Hezbollah actions in Syria.

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White House meets on Syria as allies seek support for arming rebels

Doha, Qatar__ Secretary of State John Kerry has postponed a planned trip to the Middle East for urgent consultations on Syria at the White House and with US allies this week. The intense consultations come as the Obama administration, under pressure from the UK and France amid regime gains on the ground, could decide this week whether to approve sending lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, the Associated Press reports Monday.

President Obama on Monday will hold a principals committee meeting with his national security cabinet on Syria, a western diplomatic source tells Al-Monitor. Kerry is also scheduled to hold a video conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday, according to his State Department schedule.

The flurry of high-level meetings come as the UK and France, which pushed for the expiration last month of a European Union arms embargo on Syria, have been seeking Obama's vocal endorsement to arm and advise the Syrian opposition military. The UK plans to put the matter to a vote before British parliament.

The possible US pivot comes as the Syrian military, backed by Hezbollah, has been reversing opposition gains on the ground in Syria, and as the US has sought to see Assad's forces set back ahead of possible transition talks in Geneva next month, analysts said.

“There's developed an orthodoxy within key Washington circles that, in order to effect a political solution, you need to change the military balance on the ground,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha center, told Al-Monitor in an interview in Qatar Monday.

The core reasons for the turn are allied pressure, including the allegations of possible chemical weapons use; the fall of Qusair (see Ali Hashem's first-hand account) and the signs of setback for the opposition; and the Syrian opposition National Coalition saying it is not coming to Geneva without more support.

The US has also over the past few months had more time to vet Syrian rebel groups, analysts said, and has somewhat increased its comfort level with Syrian opposition military leader Salim Idriss.