Enrichment capacity seen as key hurdle to Iran deal

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Washington, DC__ Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday offered upbeat reassurances about prospects for reaching a nuclear deal, even as negotiators from Iran and six world powers reported no progress from “sticker shock” nuclear talks in Vienna last week, and urged each other to return to the table next time with more “realism.”

With the “positive trend of talks, we are on threshold of solving [the] nuclear issue,” Rouhani said in China Wednesday.

Despite the intentions of both sides, Iran and world powers will not be able to reach a final nuclear accord unless Iran lowers its expectations for the size of its enrichment program, non-proliferation experts in consultation with the parties warned.

“I think Iran genuinely wants a deal,” former State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor Robert Einhorn told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“But it may not yet realize that it can’t get one unless it is prepared to lower its sights on the enrichment capacity it will be allowed to have under an agreement,” Einhorn said.

“If a deal is to happen, Iran must make the strategic decision to forego a near-term breakout capability in the form of a sizable enrichment program,” Jofi Joseph, a former White House Iran non-proliferation advisor, said Wednesday. “If it is prepared to do so, a deal can come together quickly this summer. If not, then an impasse will occur.”

Iran was frustrated by the P5+1 proposal in Vienna for a decade or more time-frame for phased sanctions relief, and wants sanctions relief in a deal to be more front-loaded for steps it’s also willing to take on the front end.

The P5+1 “say that after the agreement, we have to prove our goodwill. They will then remove sanctions one by one,” over a period of ten years, Seyed Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse reported Wednesday.

Iran also rejects that its ballistic missile program should be a subject for discussion with the P5+1, Iran’s negotiators have repeatedly said.

The largest gap that has Iran deal watchers concerned, however, is between the expectations of Iran and the West over the size of Iran’s enrichment program.

“What matters most is whether the two sides can agree on a much more limited uranium enrichment program for near term,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Al-Monitor.

“Only if Iran meets its obligations, builds confidence its program not being used for military purposes, and Iran demonstrates it has legitimate nuclear fuel needs will the international community agree to relaxing those constraints,” Kimball said.

“The brinkmanship will continue until the last minute,” one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “My problem is the incompatibility of the two sides’ end objectives…maintaining nuclear capability vs. rolling it back.”

Sources suggest the Iranians would like to initially maintain the number of centrifuges they are currently operating under the six month interim deal–about 9,000 IR-1s – to be the starting amount in the near term of a final deal, that would be allowed to increase after some duration. At the end of an as yet to be agreed period in which it would agree to restrictions and extensive inspections, monitoring and safeguards, Iran wants to have its status as a member of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) normalized, so that it could in theory have no restrictions on the size of its enrichment program.

“I understand that Iran has indicated willingness to consider short term constraints on the size of its enrichment program, such as freezing at the current level of 9,000 operating IR-1s for a few years before gradually expanding to an industrial scale of 50,000 or more IR-1 centrifuge machines,” former Obama White House non-proliferation advisor Gary Samore said in a speech posted at the Harvard Belfer Center website this week.

Meantime, Congressional sources and Israeli officials would find a deal under which Iran operated 3,000 IR-1 centrifuges while maintaining a small stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium, allowing a one year “breakout” period, “politically defensible,” Samore wrote.

Getting Iran to agree to restrict the size of its enrichment program in the near and medium term is probably more important than how many centrifuges it says it wants after a decade or two, some non-proliferation experts said.

“I actually think if you could get to a near term agreement, that would make us feel comfortable over the next ten years, it would take care of itself,” Greg Thielmann, a former US intelligence analyst with the Arms Control Association, said Tuesday.

Sources expect Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to meet as early as this weekend to discuss how to bridge wide gaps in positions, ahead of the next round of talks in Vienna June 16th. US and Iranian sources did not immediately respond if U.S. officials would participate in the meeting or might meet separately.

(Photo of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attending a banquet in Vienna May 14 2014 by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.)

Iran’s UN envoy pick questioned over ties to hostage crisis

U.S. and Iranian officials were saying little Tuesday about a controversy that has erupted over Iran’s choice to be its next envoy to the United Nations, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs committee said the Obama administration should not grant the Iranian diplomat a visa.

Hamid Aboutalebi, 56, a career Iranian diplomat close to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, told Iranian media in interviews last month that he had been summoned on occasions during the 1979 US Iran hostage crisis to serve as a translator, but was otherwise not involved.

But Aboutalebi’s even remote alleged association with the embassy seizure and hostage crisis that traumatized Americans and ruptured US Iranian diplomatic ties over three decades ago has set off a flurry of denunciations from former US hostages, and some US Iran watchers say Iran should probably pick someone else.

Congress also got involved on Tuesday, further complicating the administration’s calculus. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East and North Africa, began drafting a letter requesting that the State Department deny Aboutalebi’s application, Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet has learned. The letter is expected to address other issues as well.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power may be asked about the issue when she testifies before the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

The irony, some Iran watchers say, is that Aboutalebi, a former Iranian ambassador in Australia, Brussels and Italy who currently serves as Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, is actually a reformist with strong ties to Rouhani who could have been an empowered envoy for advancing Iran’s international engagement at the all-important UN/New York post, much as Iran’s current Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did when he served at the UN over a decade ago.

Aboutalebi “is more reformist and more skeptical and critical of the [Iranian] system than” many others, one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “And for some reason, he is considered to be very strong within the system, and would have had greater room for maneuver to get his way.”

“But to be frank, it doesn’t matter,” the Iranian analyst added. “It’s already become such an issue…Once [the controversy] hit the media, I think the Iranians should have withdrawn him much earlier.”

While Aboutalebi does not hold expertise in UN and US affairs, “he reportedly enjoys a very close working relationship with President Rouhani,” Suzanne DiMaggio, the director of the Iran and Southwest Asia program at the New America Foundation, told Al-Monitor. “Given the role that the UN Ambassador plays as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington, having a representative in the U.S. who has direct access to Iran’s President could be viewed as trumping expertise.”

“On the visa matter, I’m not optimistic mainly because it is an allegation that is as difficult to disprove as it is to prove,” DiMaggio added.

The U.S. has apparently not decided what it will do on the matter, sources suggested.

Iranian officials were circumspect about whether they expected the appointment to proceed.

“Iran’s policy is to formally appoint ambassadors – to all posts – once all the formalities are completed,” an Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday, in response to a query on Aboutalebi’s status.

Aboutalebi visited the United States as a member of Iran’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in the mid-1990s, without incident, but was never previously full-time posted to the US, the Iranian official said.

Hamid Babaei, the spokesperson for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he had no comment.

Aboutalebi, who joined the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1981 and who earned his masters at the Sorbonne and PhD in France, told Iran’s Khabar News online last month that he was not in Tehran when the US embassy was seized in November 1979, but was summoned later to translate on some occasions, including when the Pope sent an envoy to Iran to try to mediate in the hostage crisis.

“On November 4 of [1979]… at the time of the occupation [of the US Embassy in Tehran], I was not in Tehran to be aware of this development or take part in it,” Aboutalebi told Khabar News online Mach 14. “When I heard of that incident, I was in [the southwestern Iranian city of] Ahvaz. Later on, when I came to Tehran, one day the late Martyr Dadman send a message to me… He told me they needed somebody to do French translation for them. I accepted and went from my home to the airport. Therefore, accompanied with the special representative of the Pope…who had already arrived in Tehran, I entered the [US] Embassy for the first time. On few other occasions, when they needed to translate something in relation with their contacts with other countries, I translated their material into English or French. For example, I did the translation during a press conference when the female and black staffers of the embassy were released and it was purely based on humanitarian motivations.”

“As far as I know, [Aboutalebi] is not associated or does not have a close relationship with the central figures in the hostage crisis,” an Iranian scholar, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “I think his nomination came from Rouhani himself. During Ahmadinejad’s time, he did not have any position [in the Iran foreign ministry]…but was at [Rouhani’s think tank, the Center for Strategic Research], and is close to Rouhani and was active in [his presidential] campaign.”

“I think that is one of the pluses, that he is close to Rouhani, [and serves as] political director of Rouhani’s presidential office,” the Iranian scholar said. Aboutalebi “is also very close to [former Iranian President] Khatami.” During Khatami’s administration, Aboutalebi served as a top advisor to then Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi.

Aboutalebi “was despised by Ahmadienjad,” the Iranian scholar said. “I am not sure he knows the US as much as [some of] the others [in Zarif’s team], but he is a good diplomat. In terms of his political leanings, he is a reformist.”

“I am surprised” Iran chose a UN envoy with even a remote link to the hostage crisis, “because if Obama accepts [him], he will be under pressure from opponents to rapprochement,” said Mohsen Milani, an Iran scholar at the University of South Florida. “But if he says no, [Rouhani] will be pressured by right-wingers in Iran.”

–Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.

(Photo of Iran’s then ambassador to Australia Hamid Aboutalebi in Australia in August 2006, by Fairfax media’s Simon Dallinger.)

Former Obama officials propose talking with Iran on Syria aid

Amid deepening US-Russia strains over Ukraine, two former Obama administration officials say it may be time for the US to explore trying to develop a channel with Iran to discuss Syria, beginning with humanitarian relief.

While Iran, like Russia, doesn’t want to see Bashar al-Assad forced out, “its broader attitude toward the United States is cautiously warming,” and its leverage on Assad is far greater than Russia’s, Jonathan Stevenson, a former Obama National Security Council official, wrote in the New York Times this week (March 12, 2014). “This puts America and Iran somewhat closer on Syria than they may appear.”

“My bottom line sense with the Iranians is there’s hope for a US-Iran conversation [on Syria humanitarian aid] that is a serious and potentially productive one,” Frederic Hof, a former senior US diplomat advising the Obama administration on Syria and the Levant, told Al-Monitor.in an interview last week.

In track 2 conversations with Iranians that Hof has been involved in, “the people I talk to are blunt:  they are not interested in talking about a [Syria] political transition,” Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said. “They need Assad and regime support to Hezbollah in Lebanon as Iran’s first line of defense against Israel and the possibility of an Israeli air assault on their nuclear facilities.”

“Humanitarian aid is where to start—establishing localized ceasefires, facilitating aid access,” Stevenson, a former director for political-military affairs for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama administration, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Friday. Focusing on humanitarian issues initially makes sense, he said, especially given reluctance by both sides to hold “major political discussions,” and with both the US and Iran focused in the near term on the imperative of trying to reach a nuclear deal.

When Secretary of State John Kerry raised Syria at a meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last month, Zarif told Kerry that he was not authorized to discuss Syria, the State Department said. That may not be a feint, some Iran analysts suggest.  While Iran’s Supreme Leader has authorized Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif to try to negotiate a nuclear deal, “I think it’s been clear from day one that Khamenei does not want to put all his cards on the table,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran research at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor in an interview last month. “From his standpoint, if Iran puts all the issues on the table, it will be interpreted by the United States as Iran being in a position of weakness. .. The general policy of the Iran government is not to engage on these [other] issues, lest the US have the impression Iran is seeking a broader compromise.”

That may be the case, Stevenson acknowledged. “The point, though, is to tease out just how resistant they are to putting Syria on the table,” said Stevenson, who left the NSC last May and is now a professor of strategy studies at the Naval War College. “That is why it doesn’t make sense to try to do this through Geneva.”

Stevenson recommended that the US and Iran “keep strictly separate tracks”  between the nuclear talks and any prospective Syria discussions. “It should be made clear by our side, and reciprocated, that there can’t be any linkage,” he said. “For optics, you would want to keep the nuclear track the top priority, and to designate for the Syria conversation a senior State Department official not involved in the nuclear talks.”

“On Syria, the challenge on our side is always bureaucratic stove-piping,” Hof agreed. Those “in charge of the US role in the P5+1 will absolutely oppose any kind of cross -pollination or discussion about Syria. So it takes a decision almost at the highest level,” at the Kerry-Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns level, to try to pursue a Syria channel with Iran.

One official who might make sense to tap for such exploratory US Iran talks on Syria, a former official suggested, would be Puneet Talwar, who until recently served as the Obama NSC Senior Director for Gulf affairs, and who has been involved in US-Iran back channel talks to establish a bilateral diplomatic channel to advance a nuclear deal. Talwar was confirmed on Thursday as Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, and is no longer expected to be part of the US team involved in the P5+1 Iran nuclear negotiations.

Other possible officials to consider include Salman Ahmed, a counselor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice involved in the recent Syria talks in Geneva, who previously advised Rice at the UN, and before that served as a senior official in the UN Department of Political Affairs; or Rob Malley, Talwar’s successor as the NSC Senior Director for Gulf Affairs, who previously served in the Clinton White House and as Middle East director for the International Crisis Group; or Daniel Rubenstein, the former US Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan who will be tapped to succeed Robert Ford as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor reported..

Hof said he raised with Iranian interlocutors in track 2 talks the prospect of a scenario in which a “Srebrenica-style moment” occurred in Syria, as the Iran and the P5+1 were advancing a nuclear deal. A scenario in which “your client does something so outrageous, that it inspires POTUS to do what he declined to do in August or September,” Hof said. “To the extent you guys are serious on the nuclear front, what does that do to that progress?” Hof asked his Iranian interlocutors. “And they looked at one another and shrugged, because their attitude is, Assad is not the most reliable guy in the world.”

Iranians in the track 2 discussions have also expressed some problems with the UN role in Syria, Hof said, suggesting that any US-Iran channel on Syria not be through UN auspices.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, writing at Al-Monitor March 5, 2014, proposed a four-part plan for resolving the Syria crisis. In it, Amir-Abdollahian wrote that the “the provision of immediate humanitarian aid is a religious and humanitarian duty,” and that the “UN’s neutral role is significant,” perhaps hinting that Iran found the UN’s role on Syria to be less than neutral.

Amir-Abdollahian, a former Iranian ambassador to Bahrain, was among the Iranian officials who in 2007 met with US diplomats in Iraq. The trilateral US-Iran-Iraq talks on Iraq were led on the US side by then US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who found them unproductive. Was Amir-Abdollahian’s piece this month a signal of Iran interest in discussing Syria?

“Reinforcing the political track and facilitating comprehensive talks is the most appropriate method to achieve a political solution,” Amir-Abdollahian wrote. “Alongside national talks inside Syria, boosting genuine talks at both the regional and the international level is very important.”

(Photo of then US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker meeting with Iranian and Iraqi officials in Iraq in 2007 posted by the Iranian Supreme Leader’s official website March 14, 2013.)

104 lawmakers urge Congress not interfere in Iran diplomacy


As talks on a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal are set to get underway in Vienna next week, over 100 members of Congress have written President Obama expressing support for robust diplomacy as the best way to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, and urging against any Congressional action that might interfere in sensitive negotiations.

The letter, signed by 100 Democratic House members and 4 Republicans, signals opposition to any form of Congressional resolution or legislation that could interfere with Iran diplomacy at this time, Rep. David Price (D-North Carolina) said in an interview Wednesday.

“We heard lots of talk about a possible resolution, partisan or bipartisan, that might state certain expectations for the ultimate outcome [of a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal] or otherwise interject itself into” the process, Price told Al-Monitor. “That did not seem to us a good idea.”

The letter expresses opposition to “any kind of Congressional action that might empower the hardliners on the other side, raise doubts about American intentions,…almost irrespective of the content of the resolution,” he said.

While “we remain wary of the Iranian regime…we believe that robust diplomacy remains our best possible strategic option,” 104 members of the US House of Representatives wrote in the Feb. 12 letter (.pdf).

“While difficult and uncertain, diplomacy represents our best hope to prevent nuclear weapons in Iran and ensure the safety of our families and others around the world,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat representing Austin, Texas, said in a press release. “Congress should not undermine diplomacy by giving the Iranian hardliners an excuse to scuttle the negotiations.”

Six world powers and Iran are due to hold the first round of comprehensive Iran nuclear deal talks in Vienna February 18-20.

Under a six month interim deal that went into effect Jan. 20, Iran has suspended 20% enrichment, provides increased access to its nuclear facilities for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), halted further installation of centrifuges and agreed not to operate advanced centrifuges, among other steps.

The IAEA also announced Feb. 9 that Iran has agreed for the first time to provide information on detonators that could shed light on the agency’s questions about past possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.

Price said he believed there has been a shift in Congress to be more supportive of the administration’s diplomatic efforts with Iran, despite skepticism about the regime, as demonstrated by the letter as well as by the recent decision not to bring an Iran sanctions bill to a vote in the Senate.

“I think the conclusion you might draw from some of the resolutions the House has passed and the debate on the [Senate] sanctions bill, is that we have corrected that impression” that Congress does not support diplomacy with Iran, or recognize the possibility of a shift under the new Iranian Hassan Rouhani administration, Rep. Price said.

“We find members very receptive to give diplomacy a chance,” Price said, “and explore whatever possibility [for a diplomatic resolution] that the new [Iranian] president has to offer.”

(Photo: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano (L) and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend the annual Munich Security Conference February 2, 2014. REUTERS/Lukas Barth.)

What Iran’s Foreign Minister told German TV about Israel, Iran

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave a long interview to Germany’s Phoenix TV on Sunday (February 2) in Berlin, following his attendance at the Munich Security Summit.

Al-Monitor has transcribed portions of the interview, conducted in English by ZDF journalist Elmar Theveßen, concerning Zarif’s comnents on Israel.

Israeli media reports over the weekend said that Zarif in the interview suggested that if the Israelis and Palestinians reached a peace settlement, then Iranian recognition of Israel might be possible.

But as we listened to the interview, the video of which was released in the original English on Tuesday, it was the interviewer who asked Zarif if Israel and Palestine reached a resolution, would Iran then be prepared to recognize the state of Israel. And Zarif’s answer was more equivocal. While not explicitly ruling it out, Zarif said it was up to the Palestinians to determine if they were satisfied with the agreement, and that Iran would not interfere:

Phoenix TV: So let me turn this around, sir. Would it be fair to say then, would you agree, that If the Palestinian issue can be solved between Israel and the Palestinians, would then Iran be willing to recognize the state of Israel?

Zarif: You see, that is a sovereign decision that Iran will make. But it will have no consequences on the situation on the ground in the Middle East. If the Palestinians are happy with the solution, then nobody, nobody outside Palestine, could prevent that from taking place. The problem for the past 60 years is that the Palestinians have not been happy. The Palestinians have not been satisfied. And they have every right not to be satisfied, because their most basic rights continue to be violated and people are not ready to redress those.

Here is the transcript of the relevant portion of the interview, from about 20 to 30 minutes in, below the jump: Continue reading

Roundup: Obama to Riyadh, Israel DM in front row for Zarif talk

  • The White House confirmed that President Obama will travel to Saudi Arabia in March.
  • Hillary Clinton announces her opposition to new Iran sanctions in a Jan. 26 letter (.pdf) to Sen. Carl Levin.
  • Some 70 House Democrats reportedly sign a letter favoring diplomacy with Iran.
  • Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the Holocaust a “horrifying tragedy” that “should never occur again” in an interview with Germany’s Phoenix TV.
  • In a shift, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon sat in the front row during Zarif’s panel at the Munich Security Conference Sunday. (photo top right).
  • Iran Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian announced that Iran will host a conference on Syrian humanitarian assistance involving Swiss, Syrian and Iranian officials in Tehran. Last week, Amir-Abdollahian denied an Al Jazeera report that Iranian officials were meeting in Bern with the Syrian sides.
  • Turkish President Abdullah Gul shows daylight with PM Erdogan on Syria policy.
  • GOP Senators say John Kerry expressed frustration with Russia slow-rolling US on Syria.
  • Iran’s top clergy backs Hassan Rouhani’s nuclear diplomacy.

Iran, world powers may hold nuclear talks in New York

Iran and six world powers may hold the first round of negotiations to seek a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal in New York in mid-February, a U.S. official and Iranian media reports said Monday. However,an Iranian official said Monday that the parties are still working on both a place and the dates for the meeting.

“It is our understanding that the first round of comprehensive negotiations will be in New York in mid-February with dates still being confirmed on schedules,” Marie Harf, State Department deputy spokesperson, said by email Monday. 

“New York – agreed to by EU High Representative Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif – has a similar support infrastructure to Geneva,” Harf said.  “We believe that United Nations and international support is important for work on a comprehensive agreement.”

The last three rounds of high-level P5+1/Iran nuclear talks that secured a six-month interim nuclear deal on November 24th took place in Geneva.

But Syrian peace talks that got underway in Geneva last week may continue to be regularly convened for months at the UN headquarters in Geneva, diplomats earlier suggested.

It was understood that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s team suggested to P5+1 counterparts last fall that the nuclear negotiations take place in UN cities, such as Geneva, Vienna and New York.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was reported to have met with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif in Davos last week to confer on the upcoming negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear deal.

An EU spokesperson said Monday, however, that he did not yet have confirmation of the venue or dates for the next meeting. An Iranian official too, speaking not for attribution, said the venue and dates of the meeting are still being worked on.

Zarif, who previously served as Iran’s envoy to the UN in New York, met with Ashton and P5+1 foreign ministers on the sidelines of the opening of the UN General Assembly last September. US and Iranian diplomats also met quietly in New York in the run up to UNGA in  September, including to discuss arranging the September 26th one on one side-bar meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif, and the historic phone call between US President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Al-Monitor previously reported.

Three days in March: New details on how US, Iran opened direct talks

Late last February, after six world powers and Iran wrapped up nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan (Feb.26-27), two members of the U.S. nuclear negotiating team secretly flew to Oman where they rendezvoused at a beach-front villa with two American officials who had arrived from Washington.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Biden’s national security advisor, flew to the Arabian Sea port of Muscat from Washington. White House Iran advisor Puneet Talwar and State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn flew to Oman from the Almaty nuclear talks.

For the first days of March, the American officials, accompanied by some administrative and logistical support staff, stayed at a beach-side villa owned by Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, whose government had regularly offered to discreetly host US-Iran talks safely away from the media spotlight.

In Oman, the US officials met with an Iranian delegation led by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Asghar Khaji, Al-Monitor has learned.

Khaji, then Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American affairs, had previously served as Iran’s envoy to the European Union in Brussels from 2008 to 2012. In Brussels, in January 2008, Khaji accompanied Iran’s new nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to a dinner hosted by then EU High Rep and chief  nuclear negotiator Javier Solana, a US cable published by Wikileaks notes. In March 2009, Khaji became the first Iranian official to meet with NATO  in almost three decades, to discuss Afghanistan, NATO officials said.

After he became Deputy Foreign Minister in 2012, in his capacity as the Iranian diplomat who oversaw Europe and American issues, Khaji regularly liaised with Swiss officials who serve–in the absence of official US-Iran relations–as the U.S. protecting power in Iran. But Khaji wasn’t a figure particularly well known to western Iran watchers.

In Oman in March, both Khaji’s and Burns’ teams, as well as their Omani hosts, went to some lengths to keep the unusual meeting off the radar. Burns, the second highest diplomat in the United States, did not appear on the State Department public schedules at all the first four days in March, without explanation. Similarly, Iran’s Foreign Ministry and media published nothing about Khaji’s trip to Muscat, although his March 7 trip to Switzerland, a few days after the secret talks with the Americans, was announced by his Swiss Foreign Ministry hosts and received press coverage. The next week in March, Omani media also extensively covered the visit of Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast to Oman, including his visit to the Omani New Agency and with Oman’s Information minister, complete with photos, almost as if it were a decoy mission to draw attention away from the earlier one.

“On every visit to Oman, the U.S. delegation stayed in a beach-side villa controlled by the Omani government,” a source familiar with the meetings told Al-Monitor. “All of the meetings with Iran occurred at this site, so as to ensure U.S. officials would never have to leave the villa and risk detection by journalists or others.”

Both US and Iranian sources briefed on the US-Iran March meeting in Oman say that while it allowed for more candid, direct exchanges than at the seven nation P5+1/Iran talks, that it did not show an opening for real movement in positions on either side before the Iran presidential elections in June.

“It was a useful engagement, but not much progress was made, because the Iran leadership was not really interested,” a former US official, speaking not for attribution, said. “It helped provide some basis [for understanding]… It was clear that while there could be more intensive and candid discussions bilaterally, the real progress wasn’t going to be possible” before the Iranian elections.

Another meeting was tentatively planned to be held in May, another former official told Al-Monitor, but the Iranians apparently backed out.

Oman to US: Iran is ready to begin a quiet dialogue

The Omanis had encouraged the U.S., from before President Barack Obama came into office, to pursue prospects for direct dialogue with Iran, and regularly offered US envoys updates on the current mood in Iran officialdom on the matter.

Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi “offered Oman as both an organizer and a venue for any meeting the U.S. would want with Iran – if kept quiet,” US Ambassador to Oman Richard Schmierer wrote in a December 7, 2009 US cable to Washington, released by Wikileaks.

Iran “is ready to begin a quiet dialogue ‘at a lower level’ with the U.S.,” Sultan Qaboos’ long-time special Iran envoy and Culture Minister Abdul `Aziz al-Rowas told the previous US ambassador Gary Grappo, according to an April 2009 cable he wrote to Washington.

“They are ready and want to start, and you should not wait,” al-Rowas told the US envoy. “You have many more bargaining tools with them than they have against you; use all of them,” he advised, adding that the US and Iran also share interests, too, including in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and countering narcotics in Central Asia. “They don’t like to admit these things, but they need you in the region.”

But efforts by the Obama administration to get direct talks going with Iran were frustrated by domestic turmoil in the wake of Iran’s disputed June 2009 presidential polls. In October 2009, Burns and Iran’s Jallili met one-on-one, on the sidelines of P5+1 Iran nuclear talks in Geneva, at which a nuclear fuel swap deal was announced. But Iran later backed away from the agreement, after it came under domestic criticism.

Increasingly convinced that Iran was paralyzed by domestic political infighting from moving forward on a nuclear compromise, the U.S. and Europeans moved in late 2009 and 2010 to persuade international partners that it was time to increase economic pressure on Iran to try to bring it to seriously negotiate.

“No U.S. president in the last 30 years had gone to as much effort as President Obama to engage Iran,” Burns told China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at a December 2009 meeting, according to a US cable summarizing the meeting. The United States was “frustrated,” Burns explained, that the Iranians had “walked back” from the fuel swap agreement reached in Geneva. Washington “had sought creative solutions to build confidence with Iran…[but] Iran’s failure to follow through…had been disappointing.”

P5+1 talks with Iran ground to a halt at a gloomy January 2011 meeting in Istanbul attended by a grim-faced Burns. Iran’s Jalili, complaining of a headache, had avoided attending most of the meeting, and had refused to meet with Burns. Nuclear talks between the six world powers and Iran would not resume for over a year, until April 2012.

The “bilat” channel gains pace after Rouhani’s election

But the Omanis persisted, throughout the diplomatic stalemate, with their quiet efforts to forge US-Iran dialogue, and their patience eventually paid off.

In 2011 and 2012, Talwar and Sullivan–then serving as deputy chief of staff  and policy planning chief to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–participated in at least two lower-level, “preparatory” meetings with the Iranians, facilitated by the Omanis, to see about the prospect of a bilateral channel to be led on the US side by Burns, a former US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. Those preparatory talks included a July 7, 2012 meeting in Oman attended by Sullivan and Talwar, but not Burns, the AP reported.

“I was a member of a preparatory exploratory team that met with the Iranians on a couple of occasions to see if we could get talks going on the nuclear program,” Talwar told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military affairs last month. “We met with the Iranians in Oman last summer. We had another meeting in March of this year.”

“It turned out the Iranians could not move forward with the talks at that point,” Talwar said, referring to the March 2013 meeting in Oman led by Burns and Khaji.

But the US-Iran back channel got traction after the election of Hassan Rouhani, and gained rapid pace after an exchange of letters in August between Presidents Obama and Rouhani. “President Rouhani and the Iranians agreed to move forward with the talks at that time,” Talwar said.

“We then had an accelerating pace of discussions bilaterally with the Iranians,” Talwar said, stressing that the one-on-one talks with the Iranians were “tied from the get-go to the P5+1 process [and] . . . focused exclusively on the nuclear issue.”

Since Rouhani’s inauguration in August, there have been at least five rounds of bilateral talks between the U.S. and Iran, in Oman, New York and Geneva. On the U.S. side, they’ve been led by Burns, and on the Iran side, by Khajji’s successor, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American affairs Majid Ravanchi, sometimes joined by his colleague, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araghchi. Both Araghchi and Ravanchi are members of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, led by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

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Deal could double Iran breakout time: ex-US official

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Washington, D.C.__ A former senior Obama Administration official told the House Foreign Affairs Committee today that the deal proposed to Iran by the P5+1 countries in Geneva last weekend would “double Iran’s breakout time.”

“That means it would take Iran twice as long” to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl told the committee. “That is meaningful. The deal puts firm restrictions on Iran building fuel assemblies for the Arak fuel reactor.” It would “increase the inspections regime. [It] serves US and Israeli interests.”

Kahl testified that under the deal presented by six world powers to Iran at the end of a three day meeting in Geneva last weekend, Iran would suspend 20% enrichment, neutralize its 20% stockpile, refrain from building fuel assemblies at the Arak reactor and from installing new centrifuges, allow more inspections of nuclear facilities, as well as restrict the growth of its 3.5% stockpile.

In return for Iran suspending those activities for 6 months as part of the first phase of a two-part deal, Iran would receive under $10 billion in sanctions relief, including on the auto, gold and petrochemical industries, and access to approximately $3 billion in hard currency assets frozen in banks abroad.

The sanctions relief envisaged in the first phase of the deal involves “nothing permanent if the Iranians reverse course,” Kahl, now associate professor at Georgetown University, said. “Nothing [in it] guts the oil and banking sanctions,” which would be subject to reaching a comprehensive agreement that the parties aim to negotiate during the six month first phase.

“The bigger risk is to escalate the sanctions at a sensitive moment of diplomacy and watch diplomacy careening off the cliff,” Kahl warned.

An Israeli official said Wednesday, however, that the Israeli government assessed that the measures proposed in the phase 1 deal would lengthen Iran’s breakout time by only a few weeks, and would potentially offer Iran many billions of dollars more in sanctions relief.

But an analysis by former weapons inspector David Albright shared with Kahl calculated that removing Iran’s 20% enriched uranium increases the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons grade uranium for one weapon from 1.3-2.3 months to 3.1-3.5 months, Kahl said.

The House Iran hearing came as the Obama administration mounted a full court press to lobby Congress against moving new Iran sanctions legislation now as negotiations with Iran make headway.

American, European and Iranian negotiators said significant progress was made at three days of talks in Geneva November 9-11th, but it would take at least another meeting to close an agreement. A new meeting between the P5+1 and Iran, at the political director level, is scheduled for next week, November 21-22.

Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with members of the Senate Banking committee behind closed doors Wednesday to press for a delay in legislation under consideration by the panel to tighten loopholes in existing Iran sanctions.

Advocates of increasing the sanctions now say they would increase western negotiators’ leverage and keep psychological pressure on Iran’s leadership, as well as deter foreign companies looking for a wink to resume business with Iran. But US negotiators insist new sanctions now, when Iran is trying to negotiate a deal, would backfire, and risk Iran retreating from the policy of engagement promoted by the new Hassan Rouhani administration and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

New sanctions now could “wind up setting us back in dialogue that has taken 30 years to be able to achieve,” Kerry said as he arrived at the Senate Banking committee Wednesday. “What we are asking everybody to do, is calm down. Look hard at what can be achieved, what the realities are.”

Western officials say that the six powers achieved consensus on a draft proposal that was presented to Iran’s Zarif only in the last hours of the meeting in Geneva. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius raised objections to the text Kerry had been negotiating with Zarif at a meeting hosted by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Geneva Friday.

Though US President Obama and French President Francois Hollande, in a phone call Wednesday, stressed their joint support for the unified P5+1 proposal,
French ambassador to Israel Patrick Maisonneuve told a press conference in Tel Aviv Wednesday that “all of the world powers that negotiated with Iran in Geneva fell in line with the French position,” Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reported.

American diplomats–excited about the first sustained, direct US-Iran negotiations in thirty years, and concerned about opposition to a deal from Congress, Israel and Sunni Gulf allies–may have underestimated the ambivalence and even resentment some P5+1 partners may have felt about the five hour Kerry-Zarif-Ashton meeting on a draft accord in Geneva Friday in which other P5+1 powers were not included. Some European allies, led by France, may have sought to slow down what they saw as an overly hasty deal, some sources suggested.

“We are negotiating for more than 10 years,” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “I think this complex, sensitive question can afford ten more days of negotiations.”

“We made fantastic progress in Geneva,” he added. “We are not far from an agreement.”

Israel Intel Minister: Not pessimistic about Iran deal

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Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said Tuesday that he believes Iran is “serious” about wanting to make a nuclear deal to save its economy. But he pressed for no let-up in economic pressure unless Iran agrees to terms for a deal that many US national security experts believe could preclude a diplomatic compromise.

“I think they are serious,” Steinitz, speaking to al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday, said of the Iranians. “They want an agreement.”

But the deal they are aiming for, he said, is a “North Korea-type,” under which Iran would freeze, rather than dismantle, major elements of its nuclear program, and offer “better inspections procedures.”

“Nuclear energy without enrichment is the only reasonable compromise,” he said.

Steinitz was in Washington leading an Israeli delegation attending two days of high-level talks with US counterparts as part of the US-Israel Strategic Dialogue. US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman addressed the gathering Wednesday, the State Department said.

Sherman led the US delegation to P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva last week in which the Iranians “were saying they are ready to discuss” various elements of a potential nuclear compromise, Steinitz said. Though their proposal was not very detailed, Steinitz said he understood, he said he did not interpret that necessarily as a sign of lack of seriousness.

“I am not pessimistic,” Steinitz said. Iran's economic problems have brought Iranian leaders to realize they have a “dilemma,” he said. “If it’s put to them, ‘Look, the time to maneuver… is over. After ten years of negotiations… enough is enough. You have to make a decision. You want to save the Iranian economy? You have to give up your military nuclear project on all its components. You choose to continue with your military nuclear program? You will destroy the Iranian economy,” or face possible military action.

Steinitz, in the interview, argued against any sort of interim deal that might offer Iran an easing of sanctions in exchange for nuclear concessions. The concern, he said, is that once any sanctions are eased, the entire sanctions regime will crumble, and won’t be able to be ramped back up if Iran backslides on the agreement.

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