Ashton to meet Iran’s Jalili in follow up nuclear talks

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Chief international negotiator Catherine Ashton will meet Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Istanbul on May 15th, the office of the European Union foreign policy chief said Thursday.

The meeting is the “follow up to the last round of negotiations” between six world powers and Iran held in Almaty, Kazakhstan April 5-6, Ashton’s spokesperson Michael Mann said in a two-line statement Thursday.

Ashton is expected to be “in listening mode” in the follow-up consultation, a western diplomatic source told Al-Monitor Thursday is his understanding.

“The P5+1 are expecting some sort of an indication that Iran wants to engage seriously,” the diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said, adding that “the bar seems to be rather low.”

Last week, Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri repeatedly announced that Iran was ready to return to negotiations and was waiting for Ashton’s call.

“We are waiting to see whether Lady Ashton’s response is going to cover the time and venue of another round of negotiations, or will she limit her response to just discussing the substantive side of things,” Bagheri told Reuters  in an interview in Geneva April 25th.

Bagheri, in the Reuters interview, also said that Iran is willing to discuss requests from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “which go beyond our obligations” under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Reuters report said.

Iran is also due to have a meeting with the IAEA on May 15th.

“Once we reach an agreement with the agency, we also expect the (six powers), because of such cooperation with the agency which goes well beyond our obligations, to lift a number of sanctions. Unilateral sanctions which are illegal,” Bagheri told Reuters. Continue reading

Setback at Iran nuclear talks

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Almaty, Kazakhstan__Western diplomats on Friday expressed initial dismay after listening to Iranian negotiators present their response to a revised international nuclear proposal. But after further meetings Friday, western negotiators said the talks had become more substantive, though the sides remained some ways apart.

“We are somewhat puzzled by the Iranians’ characterisation of what they presented,” a western official told journalists after a three hour meeting here between diplomats from Iran and six world powers.

Rather than the “clear and concrete” response the six powers had been seeking, the Iranian nuclear negotiating team offered “some interesting, but not fully explained, general comments on our ideas,” the western official continued.

“It was mainly a reworking of what they said in Moscow,” the official said, referring to a powerpoint on Iran’s proposed framework for negotiations that Tehran envoys presented in Moscow last June.

Earlier Friday, Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri, in a mid-day press conference, said Iran had presented a “comprehensive proposal” to international negotiators that stressed the process and endgame, beyond short-term confidence-building steps.

The Islamic Republic of Iran “proposed a practical method to implement a Moscow plan in a smaller scale, and stressed that actions and so-called confidence building measures must be considered as part of a larger, more comprehensive plan,” Bagheri, speaking through a translator, said at a second press conference Friday evening.

But western diplomats expressed initial puzzlement at what they perceived as Iran’s apparant return to debating modalities for negotiations, rather than haggling over specific steps discussed at two recent rounds of talks this year.

“We had a long and substantial discussion on the issues, but we remain a long way apart on the substance,” a western official said at the conclusion of the first day of talks Friday. “We are now evaluating the situation and will meet again tomorrow.”

Diplomats from Iran, the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the EU are expected to meet again here on Saturday. Iran also held a series of bilateral meetings Friday evening, including with the Russians, Germany, and UK. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is expected to meet with Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili Saturday morning before plenary talks get underway.

Another meeting ‘to narrow gaps’ will possibly be agreed before delegations depart, one official suggested, although it was not yet clear at what level it would be held.

Western diplomats notably sent out the SOS about how things were going downhill early in the first day of the expected two-day talks in an apparent bid to try to salvage seeming progress made in two recent rounds of talks. Iran seeks, before it would agree to suspend its 20% enrichment, to get assurances on a path that will result in recognition of its right to enrich and broader sanctions relief. Western diplomats say Iran should take the first step in a confidence building measure.

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P5+1 seeks ‘clear and concrete’ response from Iran in Almaty

20130404-101537.jpgAlmaty, Kazakhstan__ Western diplomats said Thursday they hope Iran comes here with a “clear and concrete” response to a revised international proposal aimed at curbing Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work.

“What would be most helpful is for Iran to give us concrete responses, what they think they’re willing to do on this proposal, what gives them concerns, …[to] get into a real and substantive negotiation,” a senior US administration official told journalists in a conference late Wednesday ahead of boarding a flight to Kazakhstan. “I’m hopeful that they will do that.”

“We would of course like them to come and say, ‘We accept the proposal. Now let’s work out the details,’” the American official continued. “But that’s not usually the way these things work. … That’s why you’re in a negotiation to begin with.”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton “calls upon Iran to give a clear and concrete answer to the E3/EU+3′s Almaty proposal,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for Ashton, said Thursday.

Diplomats from Iran and six world powers are gathering here ahead of the third set of nuclear talks in the past five weeks, which are due to get underway Friday. International negotiators presented a revised international proposal at high level talks held in Almaty in February, and then held technical talks in Istanbul last month.

The Iranian negotiating team is expected on Friday to present a response to the latest P5+1 proposal, that includes Iran’s suggested steps, an Iranian source suggested Thursday. Iran’s counter proposal will aim “to test” western intentions, he said.

“We think our talks tomorrow can go forward with one word,” Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said in a talk to Kazakh university students Wednesday. “That is the acceptance of the rights of Iran, particularly the right of enrichment.”

Striking a familiar theme, Jalili also criticized nuclear armed world powers that seek to limit other countries’ nuclear rights. “No country should have a nuclear weapon,” Jalili said.

Despite the tough tone, western diplomats said Iranian technical experts were particularly engaged and focused on substantive details at technical talks held in Istanbul March 18th that went on for twelve hours. The Iranian technical team was not authorized to negotiate, however, the American diplomat said, but rather to seek more information and clarification on the international proposal.

The Iranian team, in Istanbul, indicated Tehran was considering an international request to suspend 20% enrichment for six months, and to continue converting Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium to oxide for medical use, a diplomatic source told Al-Monitor last month. However, the Iranian team expressed objections to other elements in the international proposal, the diplomat said. Among them: suspending other operations at the Fordo facility except 20% enrichment, shipping out its 20% stockpile, and increased IAEA inspections.

Iranian diplomats have also said that while they consider the revised international proposal an improvement from one presented in Baghdad last year, they still find it “imbalanced” between its demands and the incentives it offers.

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US, Iran nuclear teams to Istanbul for technical talks

Nuclear experts from Iran and six world powers head to Istanbul next week to discuss a revised international proposal that Iranian officials welcomed as a “turning point” at a meeting in Kazakhstan last month.

The U.S. team to the Istanbul talks, to be held March 18, includes two veteran State Department arms control negotiators, Robert Einhorn and Jim Timbie, as well as Jofi Joseph, an Iran director in the White House WMD shop, US officials told the Back Channel Thursday. Einhorn and Timbie previously attended technical talks with Iran held in Istanbul last July, along with then White House WMD czar Gary Samore, who left the administration in January for Harvard.

Iran’s delegation to the technical talks in Istanbul next week is expected, as last July, to be led by Hamid-Reza Asgari, a longtime member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team, who multiple Iranian sources tell Al-Monitor is an Iranian intelligence officer who has been involved in Iran's international arms control discussions for over a decade. Iran's team to Istanbul last July also included Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

(A revealing detail on their dynamic comes from a late 2009 US cable, released by Wikileaks, and written by then US envoy to the IAEA Glyn Davies. It describes Soltanieh as having moved to shake US Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman's hand at a 2009 Vienna meeting, “necessitating Iranian Legal Advisor Asgari to pull him [Soltanieh] away from” the U.S. delegation, Davies wrote.)

American and Iranian officials had fairly extensive discussions at the last technical meeting in Istanbul last July, a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists at P5+1 talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan last month.

“There’s a little heightened hope that Iran will respond in a meaningful way when they meet,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department arms control official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told the Back Channel Thursday. “If Iran comes back engaging in the details…if they are talking the same language…it would be very much progress.”

President Obama, speaking on Wednesday ahead of his first presidential trip to Israel next week, said that the United States currently assesses it would be at least a year before Iran could manufacture a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and the United States and international partners had been intensifying efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution in that window because it would prove more durable.

“Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close,” Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
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Iran diplomat offers tentatively positive take on Almaty talks


Almaty, Kazakhstan__An Iranian diplomat, in an interview with Al-Monitor, offered a cautiously positive take on the nuclear talks that got underway in Kazakhstan Tuesday, though he said Iran still considers that a new international proposal asks more of Iran than it offers.

“We think in Almaty the whole frame is positive, because we are going to discuss the principles [and] specifics,” the Iranian official, who did not wish to be named, told Al-Monitor shortly after nuclear talks got underway here Tuesday. “We believe that until now, there has not really been a negotiation.”

“I can’t say what will be the outcome,” the official continued. “But we think the outcome should be some technical meetings.” That would seem to correspond with what Western diplomats said Monday, that they were hoping to have a follow up meeting, or a series of follow up meetings, with the Iranians at the technical experts level, ideally beginning before Iran’s Nowruz New Year’s holiday in March.

Both Iran and the P5+1 agree that a comprehensive deal “is not possible right now, so both sides are trying to solve one part of it,” the Iranian diplomat said. “Both sides agree on which part to solve right now,” as a first step, focused on Iran’s 20% enrichment activities, he said.

From Iran’s perspective, he continued, however, “the problem is, what the P5+1 wants to give us is not [balanced with] their requests.”

The updated P5+1 proposal formally presented to Iran Tuesday includes some sanctions relief on the gold trade, petrochemical industry, and some small scale banking sanctions, according to a source close to the talks who received a copy of it late Monday from a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Al-Monitor first reported earlier Tuesday.

“We have come here with a revised offer and we have come to engage with Iran in a meaningful way, our purpose being to make sure that we’ve had a good and detailed conversation, with the ambition that we see progress by the end of the meeting,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said ahead of the first round of talks Tuesday.

The revised international offer is “balanced” and “responsive” to what the six powers heard from the Iranians in three rounds of talks last year, Michael Mann, spokesman for Ashton, told journalists at a press briefing in Almaty Tuesday.

Talks got underway Tuesday at 1:30pm and broke off at about 4:30pm. Western officials later confirmed that there had been further consultations among the parties, including Iranian bilateral meetings with the Germans, British, Chinese and Russians, a diplomat said.

Talks will resume for a second day Wednesday, starting with a bilateral meeting between Ashton and Jalili, followed by a plenary session at 11am.

“We had a useful meeting today, discussions took place this evening, we are meeting again tomorrow,” a western official said late Tuesday.

The U.S. delegation to the talks is led by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and includes National Security Staff Senior Director for the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar, State Department arms control envoy Robert Einhorn, another State Department arms control advisor Jim Timbie, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer, and a veteran Farsi-speaking US diplomat who specializes in Iranian affairs Alan Eyre.

Iran’s delegation includes the Secretary of Supreme National Security Council Dr. Saeed Jalili, his deputy Ali Bagheri, legal/nonproliferation advisor Hamid-Reza Asgari,, the head of the Iranian foreign ministry IPIS think tank Mostafa Dolatyar, Iran deputy foreign minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi, and former Iranian ambassador to the UK Rasoul Movahedian-Atar.

(Photo: Participants sit at a table during talks on Iran's nuclear programme in Almaty February 26, 2013. REUTERS/Stanislav Filippov/Pool.)

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Iran nuclear advisor sets out ‘maximalist’ stance as Iran mulls new talks

Iran's IAEA ambassador Soltanieh and Iran's IAEA advisor Asgari attend a meeting on the Iranian nuclear issue in ViennaAmid a continued stalemate in efforts to resume nuclear talks, a key advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team has published a proposal he says has been previously presented to the United States and five world powers for resolving international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

The author, Mahdi (or Mehdi) Mohammadi, the former political editor of Iran’s hardline Kayhan newspaper, is one of two key architects of Iran’s nuclear negotiating strategy under the team led by Iran National Security Advisor Saeed Jalili, an Iranian source who requested anonymity said.

The other is Hamid-Reza Asgari, the low-profile legal advisor to Iran’s Atomic Energy organization and senior non-proliferation advisor to Iran’s National Security Council. Asgari led Iran’s team to technical talks with arms control officials from the United States and other P5+1 powers in Istanbul July 3rd.. Asgari previously met with American, as well as Russian and French diplomats, in Vienna on October 21, 2009 to discuss the details of a nuclear fuel swap deal that later fell apart amid domestic infighting in Iran.

Asgari “is the real boss,” the Iranian source told the Back Channel.

“The two sides, according to Tehran, should first address each other’s concerns,”  Mohammadi wrote in Iran Review January 9th:

The United States should, thus, recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium and Iran, in return, will announce that it has no plan to build nuclear weapons. In the next stage, the US and the European Union should remove all unilateral sanctions against Iran and Iran, for its part, will take immediate steps to address the remaining concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which the Western countries claim to be very important. In fact, a new round of IAEA’s inspections of and access to Iran’s nuclear sites will begin. In the third stage, Iran will be ready to negotiate about 20-percent enrichment provided that the United Nations Security Council will annul all its sanctions resolutions against Tehran. [...]

The proposal, which would not have Iran negotiate curbing its higher 20% uranium enrichment activities until the third step, after the lifting of US and European sanctions, might be viewed as a disheartening sign that Iran may still not be prepared to seriously negotiate. At the same time, it could be read as an Iranian effort not to appear over-eager for a deal, ahead of anticipated negotiations Tehran does hope will lead to sanctions relief.

“It’s all part of the pre-negotiation negotiation,” analyst Mark Fitzpatrick suggested.

“Iran is still in the opening salvo stages of negotiations, presenting its maximalist demands,” Fitzpatrick, a nuclear expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told the Back Channel Tuesday. “And clearly these so-called reciprocal concessions are not in the ballpark for what the six powers can accept. Because Iran is not really giving up anything other than 20%. No mention of Fordo, of its stockpile [of enriched uranium] and no limits on its 5% production.”

“Considering that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad repeatedly said Iran could stop 20% in exchange for fuel for [the Tehran Research Reactor] TRR, now Iran is demanding everything for stopping 20%,” Fitzpatrick continued. “That is not a reasonable position for the P5. And they [the Iranians] need to get in the room and talk seriously.”

The publication of Tehran’s proposal comes as western negotiators have been waiting with growing discouragement for Iran to respond to numerous attempts to schedule a new round of talks with six world powers.

“We have spoken to them a number of times since before the new year and have offered dates and venue, but they still don’t come back with a straight answer,” Michael Mann, a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told the Back Channel Monday. Continue reading

White House denies report that US and Iran agreed to direct talks

The White House on Saturday denied a report in the New York Times that the United States and Iran had agreed to hold one–on-one talks on Iran’s nuclear program after the US presidential elections next month. But the White House reiterated that the Obama administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

And a Washington Iran analyst told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding that a senior US arms control official has held authorized talks with an Iranian official posted to Turkey.

“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement Saturday. “We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister also issued a statement Sunday denying direct talks with the United States. “Talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations,” Ali Akbar Salehi said at a press conference Sunday. “Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States.”

The Iran analyst, who asked not to be named, told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore has had talks with an Iranian official posted as a diplomat to Turkey. The Iranian official was not identified.

US officials did not respond to requests for guidance from Al-Monitor late Saturday on the allegation a US official has had talks with an Iranian official or in what capacity.

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Iran nuclear technical talks get underway in Istanbul

Technical experts from the EU, United States, Russia, China and Iran are meeting in Istanbul today (July 3rd), to see if they can narrow differences on a proposed confidence building measure that would halt Iran's 20% enrichment activities.

State Department nonproliferation advisor Bob Einhorn and the White House WMD czar Gary Samore are representing the United States at the Istanbul talks.

Irani's top envoy in Istanbul is Hamid Reza Asgari, a legal adviser to Iran's atomic energy organization and non-proliferation advisor to Iran's national security council (pictured above, right, in 2009).

While expectations for the Istanbul talks have been quite low, some analysts said they may be able to make more progress outside of the spotlight and somewhat rigid format of the seven nation P5+1/Iran political-level talks.

“Short and haphazard sittings among senior representatives left too many gaps, which were filled with posturing and political brinksmanship in the interregnum between the talks,” Ali  Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, wrote at Al Monitor Monday. “In contrast, technical meetings can take place in a less charged atmosphere. As such, they could offer a suitable avenue for essential duologue between Iranian and American negotiators, without the fear of stirring up a political hornet's nest back home.”

“Make no mistake: the issue at the crux of Iran’s nuclear crisis is politics, not physics,” Vaez continued. “But while common ground between the two sides on political issues is extremely narrow, if not nonexistent, there is room for maneuver in the technical realm. For instance, both Iran and the P5+1 appear amenable to a compromise on curbing Tehran’s uranium enrichment activities at the 20 per cent level, which provides a shortcut to weapons-grade fissile material: Continue reading