Nuclear negotiators still waiting for Iran RSVP


The government of Iran has still not gotten back to international negotiators about a prospective date and venue for a new round of nuclear talks with six world powers, a diplomat told the Back Channel Sunday.

“No news,” a spokesperson for the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told the Back Channel by email Sunday in response to a query.

Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid held a telephone call with deputy Iran nuclear negotiator Dr. Ali Bagheri on December 12th to propose possible dates and the venue of Istanbul for a new meeting. Although one date proposed was December 20, several western diplomats said their expectation was that a new meeting would not materialize until January.

Meantime, Iran is due to host a senior team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Iran on January 16th.

Amid the uncertainty on when nuclear negotiations will resume, the Obama administration gave a somewhat upbeat assessment to the New York Times last week about Iran’s having held flat its stockpile of higher enriched uranium last summer.

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Iran FM: Iran, world powers seek ‘exit’ from nuclear stalemate

Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Monday he is optimistic about upcoming Iran nuclear talks and that both sides seek to move past the current diplomatic impasse.

“Both sides”—Iran and the P5+1—“have concluded that they have to exit the current impasse,” Salehi said in an interview published Monday (Dec 17) by the Iran Student News Agency (ISNA), first reported in English by Reuters.

“Iran wants its legitimate and legal right and no more,” Salehi continued. “They know very well Iran will not give up its legitimate right.”

Iran’s top diplomat said he didn’t know when the next round of talks will be held.

A spokesperson for the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told Al-Monitor Monday they had no new word from Iran on when they would meet.

Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid spoke with her Iranian counterpart Dr. Ali Bagheri last week (Dec 12) to propose possible meeting dates as early as this week. But diplomats said they expected a meeting is more likely to materialize in January.

Salehi told ISNA he could not comment on the P5+1 package Iran had received.

Western diplomats have indicated that the proposal has been updated from the “stop, ship and shut” package presented to Iran at a meeting in Baghdad last May, but have provided no details on the changes.

“The package has the same bone structure, but with some slightly different tattoos,” a senior US official was cited by the Washington Post Friday.

“Our assessment is that it is possible that they are ready to make a deal,” the official said. Continue reading

EU, Iran discuss new nuclear talks

European Union deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid on Wednesday spoke by phone with her Iranian counterpart Ali Bagheri to discuss possible dates and locations for a new round of Iran nuclear talks, a European diplomat told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

It is still unclear if talks will resume before or after the new year, the diplomat said.

“We hope that agreement with Iran can soon be reached on how to continue the talks and make concrete progress towards addressing international concerns and finding a diplomatic solution,” a statement from the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.

The phone contact to initiate logistical planning for a new meeting comes as the six powers that comprise the P5+1 have been seeking internal consensus on how to update the proposal to present to Iran at the next meeting, Al-Monitor reported this week. Pressure is high to shape and reach a deal that would curb Iran's higher 20% enrichment work on a short time table, given the size of Iran's accumulated stockpile of fissile material and the concern that Iran may become even more politically distracted and uncompromising as it heads into its presidential elections in June.

The recent internal consultations have been close-hold, given the desire to maintain and project unity among the six powers, amid different thinking and constraints on what can and should be put forward, and the diplomatic challenge of how to persuade Iran of the sense of urgency to take a deal soon.

“We are deeply engaged in consultations right now with our P-5+1 colleagues, looking to put together a presentation for the Iranians at the next meeting that does make it clear we’re running out of time, we’ve got to get serious, here are issues we are willing to discuss with you, but we expect reciprocity,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Saban Forum November 30th.

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Ahead of new Iran nuclear talks, six powers debate updating package

Diplomats, stressing no date or location has yet been set, tentatively expect six world powers to hold a new round of nuclear talks with Iran in January.

Part of the hold-up is jammed-up calendars—NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels this week, several dozen countries’ top diplomats are due to meet in Morocco on Syria next week (December 12); the IAEA is due to visit Iran next week (December 13).

But a larger reason for the delay and current sense of uncertainty on when nuclear talks will resume is that the six powers that make up the so-called “P5+1” have still not agreed amongst themselves whether and how to refresh the package presented to Iran at the next meeting, diplomats speaking not for attribution told Al-Monitor in interviews in recent days.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alluded to intense consultations on the matter last week.

“We are deeply engaged in consultations right now with our P-5+1 colleagues, looking to put together a presentation for the Iranians at the next meeting that does make it clear we’re running out of time, we’ve got to get serious, here are issues we are willing to discuss with you, but we expect reciprocity,” Clinton said at the Saban Forum of US and Israeli diplomats and Middle East experts last week (November 30th).

Britain’s political director Mark Sedwill and some of his team were in Washington last week for consultations with their American counterparts about that and other matters.

Some diplomatic sources thought that the United States and EU3—the UK, France and Germany–were expecting to reach consensus on the matter among themselves by the end of last week, but there were signs that the issue was still being discussed among the six as of Tuesday.

Clinton repeatedly stressed that the United States believes a bilateral conversation between the Americans and Iranians could help advance prospects for a nuclear deal.

“We have, from the very beginning, made it clear to the Iranians we are open to a bilateral discussion,” Clinton, speaking to the same Saban Forum, continued. “So far there has not yet been any meeting of the minds on that. But we remain open. … But we understand that it may take pushing through that obstacle to really get them fully responsive to whatever the P-5+1 offer might be.”

Al-Monitor has previously reported that the Americans were inclined to urge expanding the offer to “more for more”—while the Europeans had not reached consensus on that as of the meeting of P5+1 political directors held in Brussels on November 21st.

The “more for more” offer, as one US source explained it to Al-Monitor last month, would envision updating the “stop, ship, and shut” offer regarding 20% uranium enrichment to get more verifiable limits on the rest of Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for greater international concessions, including some form of sanctions relief.

“’Refreshing the package’ is the language being used,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor in an interview last week (November 3oth). “Consultations are continuing on how to refresh it.”

“But I am not impressed with” the diplomatic preparations to date, Clawson said. “The conversations are extremely timid.” The argument that there are only a “few windows” before Christmas to hold a meeting struck him as implausible, he said.

However, some diplomatic sources suggested international negotiators may be hoping to use the delay and distractions of the season to hold a couple quiet, technical meetings with the Iranians before the next round of high-level political talks. Such technical talks, held with minimal publicity, could be a way to try to narrow differences ahead of getting to the political directors’ meetings with Iran, where little progress to date has been made.

American and Iranian nuclear experts had “several” conversations at P5+1 “technical” meetings with Iran held in Istanbul July 3rd, diplomats told Al-Monitor, leaving unclear if subsequent conversations or contacts amongst those involved occurred after that date.

A spokesperson told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he had no information about any further contacts between the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton or her deputy Helga Schmid and Tehran.

Meantime, several sources told Al-Monitor they expected the US Iran team to undergo some changes as national security appointments shake out in Obama’s second term. Some sources thought chief US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman, the Undersecretary of State for Policy, would likely leave when Clinton’s successor gets her or his team in place. Several sources also said State Department arms control envoy Robert J. Einhorn is likely to depart, for a chair waiting for him at the Brookings Institution. White House WMD czar Gary Samore may stay on for now, administration sources suggested.

Despite possible changes in the US Iran negotiating team, “the administration is determined that the transition will not be a problem in moving forward,” Clawson said.

(Photo: Political directors from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China met in Brussels November 21st, at a meeting on resuming Iran nuclear talks hosted by European Union foreign policy chief and chief international negotiator Catherine Ashton. Photo posted by the European External Action Service.)

Iran taps diplomat to field US non-official contacts

In a sign of Iranian interest in streamlining back channel contacts and reducing mixed messages ahead of anticipated, resumed nuclear negotiations next month, Iran was said to appoint a central point of contact for approaches from outside-government Americans, two Iran nuclear experts told Al-Monitor this week.

Mostafa Dolatyar, a career Iranian diplomat who heads the Iranian foreign ministry think tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), was tapped by Iran’s leadership to coordinate contacts with American outside-government policy experts, including those with former senior US officials involved unofficially in relaying ideas for shaping a possible nuclear compromise, the analysts told Al-Monitor in interviews this week. The IPIS channel is for coordinating non-official US contacts, which in the absence of formal diplomatic ties, have formed an important, if not unproblematic, part of Iran’s diplomatic scouting and Washington’s and Tehran’s imperfect efforts to understand and influence each others’ policy positions.

The appointment is the result of a desire “on the Iranian side for a more structured approach to dealing with America,” Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran nuclear expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor in an interview Monday, adding that he now doubts that there are agreed plans for direct US-Iran talks after the elections.

“I was told … that Iran had appointed one person to be the channel for all approaches from the Americans,” specifically for former officials and non-governmental experts, Fitzpatrick continued. “And Iran wants to structure that so that Iran is speaking from one voice.“ Continue reading

Ashton, Jalili hold ‘constructive’ four-hour dinner meeting

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton held a ‘useful and constructive’ four hour dinner meeting with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Istanbul Tuesday, at which he stressed Iran’s interest in continuing negotiations, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

Jalili made clear at the dinner, which stretched from 7:30pm until almost midnight, that the Iranians would like negotiations to continue, diplomats said. Ashton, for her part, would also like to move the process forward, but stressed to the Iranians that it’s time for them to get serious.

Also attending the dinner Tuesday–which was held at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul–were Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid, Iranian deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri, and Ashton’s chief of staff James Morrison. (Video of Ashton and team arriving at the Iranian consulate here.)

The Iranians avoided the hectoring and litany of complaints that had characterized the strained atmosphere at high level six nation talks with Iran held in Moscow in June. The informal dinner discussion deliberately did not focus, however, on the substantive details of the international dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.

Ashton heads to New York Saturday, where she will hold meetings on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly opening session with senior envoys from the P5+1 negotiating group–the United States, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China–on how to proceed.

It’s not yet clear if the six nations’ foreign ministers will meet as a group or if Ashton will hold some bilateral discussions giving readouts. Russia, for one, hasn’t yet agreed to a foreign minister-level meeting, sources said.

Jalili, speaking to a news conference in Istanbul Wednesday, said he and Ashton had agreed to confer after her discussions with the six powers in New York, Reuters reported.

Beyond the New York discussions, the path going forward is ‘open,’ as one western diplomat put it Wednesday, meaning yet to be agreed among the members of the P5+1. Without greater hope of progress, some capitals, including Washington, had recently opposed holding another round of high-level political director talks with Iran, at least in the near term. (France had also expressed reservations about Ashton holding the dinner meeting with Jalili.)

Ashton was returning to Brussels from Istanbul Wednesday, after meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

(Photo: European Council TV Newsroom.)


EU, Iran deputy nuclear negotiators meet in Turkey

Deputy nuclear negotiators for Iran and the P5+1 have wrapped up a meeting in Istanbul.

Helga Schmid, the EU deputy foreign policy chief, and her Iranian counterpart, Dr. Ali Bagheri, met to try to see if there’s a way to narrow vast differences that have emerged in three rounds of nuclear talks. The gaps were so wide at the last round of nuclear talks in Moscow last month that negotiators decided to schedule three sets of lower profile meetings. Schmid and Bagheri’s discussions Tuesday followed a July 3rd technical meeting between nuclear experts. Chief negotiators for the EU and Iran are next due to confer, to see if there’s sufficient basis for progress to reconvene again at the senior political level.

“The meeting between Helga Schmid and Dr Bagheri has finished,” EU spokesman Michael Mann said. “As agreed in Moscow, the next stage will be a contact between” EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iran’s chief nuclear  negotiator Dr. Saeed Jalili.

EU diplomats declined to provide more details on the meeting Tuesday.

The P5+1 has asked Iran to stop its 20% enrichment, ship out its 20% stockpile, and close the fortified Fordo enrichment site as a first-step confidence-building measure. Iran has indicated it is willing to discuss halting its 20% enrichment, but wants recognition of its right to enrich for energy purposes and more relief from draconian new sanctions than the international proposal  provides.


Iran, EU deputy nuclear negotiators to meet July 24

The deputy nuclear negotiators for Iran and the six-nation P5+1 negotiating group will meet in Istanbul on July 24th, a European Union spokesman said Monday.

Deputy EU foreign policy chief Helga Schmid will meet with her Iranian counterpart Ali Bagheri in Turkey to try to find a way to bridge significant gaps in the two sides’ positions.

“The objective for the meeting of Schmid and Bagheri is to look further at how existing gaps in positions could be narrowed and how the process could be moved forward,” Michael Mann, an EU spokesman, said in an emailed statement sent to Al-Monitor Monday.

The meeting plans come a week after nuclear experts from the seven nations met in Istanbul for over 15 hours last week to discuss the technical details of a P5+1 confidence building proposal. That proposal, first presented to Iran in Baghdad in May, asks Iran to halt its 20% enrichment activities, ship out its 20% stockpile, and decommission the highly fortified Fordo enrichment facility, built into a mountain near Qom, in exchange for fuel and safety upgrades for Tehran’s medical and civilian eactors and spare parts for its civilian aircraft.

Negotiations between senior diplomats from the P5+1 and Iran stalled in Moscow last month over wide gaps between the two sides’ positions. Iran had expressed willingness to discuss halting its 20% enrichment activities, but sough recognition in turn for its right to enrich to 3.5%, while raising objections to the two other international demands. Iran has since made public the proposal (.pdf) it made to the P5+1 in Moscow. Continue reading

Ashton-Jalili chat for an hour: “Moscow is a green light”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had a one hour phone conversation with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Monday evening, after several days of bickering between western and Iranian negotiators about preparations for upcoming nuclear talks in Moscow.

“Moscow is a green light,” a western diplomat told Al Monitor Monday was the upshot of the call.

Ashton, in the call, updated Iran’s chief negotiator, Dr. Saeed Jalili, on the conclusions of the six nation international negotiating group, which met in Strasbourg Monday.

“Jalili went on and on about need for a technical meeting,” a European diplomat told Al Monitor on condition he not be identified. “Ashton stayed firm.”

The Iranians “have now backed down from that and appear prepared to engage on our proposals, which is important for us,” he added. “We will respond to their ideas.”

Ashton and Jalili “agreed on the need for Iran to engage on the E3+3 proposals, which address its concerns on the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program,” a statement from a spokesperson for Ashton said.

“She also conveyed the E3+3’s readiness to respond to the issues raised by the Iranians in Baghdad.”

The Ashton-Jalili conversation–the first since difficult nuclear talks in Baghdad last month–comes after several days of rancorous correspondence between the deputy European and Iranian negotiators over preparations for the upcoming Moscow talks. Among the low-points: Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri reportedly claimed he never received a copy of a detailed confidence building proposal presented by the international group to Iran in Baghdad last month, the Guardian reports. (The EU’s Helga Schmid resent the proposal Monday, “as Iran seemingly ignores the existence of the paper (which had been handed over by DSG [Schmid] to [Bagheri]  personally in Baghdad on May 23),” a western diplomat said, reflecting evident frustration from the last few days interactions with Tehran.

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Iran complains over preparations for Moscow nuclear talks

Deputy nuclear negotiators for Iran and the international community spoke twice by phone last Friday, European diplomats said Monday. But the conversations have apparently not resolved Iranian concerns about upcoming nuclear talks in Moscow, as evinced by an Iranian PR push portraying international negotiators as intransigent and thus responsible for any failure at the meeting.

“Clearly there is a discernible change in Iranian tactics,” a European diplomat, speaking anonymously, told Al Monitor Monday.

Iran wants a meeting in advance of Moscow to prepare the agenda, Iranian analysts said. But European diplomats say the Iranian negotiators are playing games.

The Iran-EU bickering comes as diplomats from the six-nation negotiating group known as the P5+1 arrived in Strasbourg Monday to consult ahead of the next round of Iran nuclear talks, which are due to be held in Moscow June 18-19th. In advance of the meeting, however, Iranian media have steadily reported on a series of letters from Iran’s nuclear negotiators to their European Union counterparts, warning that the talks won’t go well if their requests for an experts meeting in advance aren’t granted.

Iranian media reported Monday on the latest such letter from Iran’s number two nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri to his European Union counterpart, Helga Schmid.

In the letter, dated Sunday June 10, Bagheri wrote that his boss, Saeed Jalilli, had complained to EU foreign policy chief Caatherine Ashton at a meeting in Baghdad last month that “your lack of preparation has caused the trend of the talks to be slowed down and even lead to standstill,” Iran’s IRNA news agency reported.

(A western official said what in fact became apparent in an Ashton-Jalili bilateral meeting in Baghdad on May 23rd were seeming divisions within Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. Specifically, Jalili in Baghdad distanced himself from some positions that his deputy Bagheri had taken in two preparatory meetings with Schmid held quietly in Geneva  in mid May, the source said. That may in part explain why western negotiators have been unreceptive this time to Iranian requests for an “experts meeting” ahead of the Moscow talks, proposing instead a meeting between chief political envoys.)

The Guardian’s Julian Borger adds Monday: “At the end of last week, it appears confusion slipped into farce when the deputy Iranian negotiator, Ali Bagheri, claimed to his EU counterpart, Helga Schmid, that he was not aware of any such proposal, even though he was there at the table when it was handed over. Consequently, Schmid resent the text over the weekend.”)

European diplomats said they hoped to possibly ease some of the acrimony in a telephone conversation scheduled to take place later Monday between Ashton and Jalili.

“We are keen, we want them to engage,” on a confidence building proposal put forward at the Baghdad meeting, the European diplomat said, of western expectations for Iran at the upcoming meeting in Moscow.

He said they have been “doubly surprised” that Bagheri, who he described as “genteel and cordial,” in previous interactions, is recently writing “such acerbic letters.”

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the lead US rep to the talks, flew to Strasbourg, France for meetings Monday and Tuesday with her counterparts from the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China as well as the EU’s Ashton.

“The United States remains united with other P5+1 partners in our commitment to serious preparations for the Moscow round of talks, and to enabling the diplomatic track to succeed,” the State Department said in a statement Sunday announcing Sherman’s travel. Continue reading