Former Obama nuclear advisor Samore: Iran might take deal after June polls

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Expectations are low for an Iran nuclear deal before Iranian presidential elections in June, former White House nuclear advisor Gary Samore told the Brookings Institution Monday. After that, it’s possible Iran might agree to a deal on curbing its 20% enrichment, or it will face increasing economic sanctions, Samore said.

“I think it’s possible Iran could decide after the presidential elections to accept the small deal on the table now,” Samore, who served as President Obama’s ‘WMD czar’ until January, told the panel on Iran negotiations Monday.

From Iran’s standpoint, “it’s a good deal,” Samore, now executive director of the Harvard Belfer Center, continued. “If it is looking at ways to create a respite” from economic sanctions, “what’s on offer might do that.”

The panel on negotiating with Iran comes as diplomats from Iran and six world powers return to Almaty, Kazakhstan later this week for the second round of nuclear talks in the past five weeks.

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‘Most substantive’ Iran nuclear talks to date, but narrow area of agreement


Iranian nuclear experts deeply engaged on the substance of a revised international proposal, and said they are considering suspending 20% enrichment for six months and converting their 20% stockpile to oxide for medical use at technical talks with six world powers held in Istanbul last week, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

However, the Iranians raised numerous objections to other elements in a revised international proposal presented in Kazakhstan last month, a diplomatic source, speaking not for attribution, said Tuesday. Among them: suspending other operations at Fordo except for 20% enrichment, shipping out Tehran’s stockpile of 20% enriched fuel; as well as enhanced IAEA inspections.

American officials “had the most substantive conversation they ever had” with the Iranians, another analyst briefed on the Istanbul talks, speaking not for attribution, said. International arms control envoys “went through their [international] proposal slide by slide, and [the Iranians] didn’t focus on [their] counter proposal.”

The Iranians in Istanbul were cool to incentives in the revised offer, including modest sanctions relief, but did not explain what they would want instead, according to the diplomat.

The updated proposal offered to ease sanctions on the gold trade and petrochemical sales, but not major oil and banking sanctions, Al-Monitor reported last month.

Diplomats from six world powers head back to Almaty, Kazakhstan next week for political director level talks with Iran, to be held April 5-6.

Two sources suggested the US may be looking at additional incentives to possibly bolster the international offer, but the details were unclear.

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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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US seen hardening its position in Iran nuclear talks

Iran came to talks in Moscow last week (June 18-19) prepared to discuss stopping enriching uranium to 20% but refused two other conditions that might have led to a partial agreement in the nuclear standoff, Barbara Slavin and I report on the front page:

Briefings by diplomats whose countries took part in the talks portrayed the meetings as a “dialogue of the deaf,” with the two sides trading widely divergent proposals. However, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator did express willingness to discuss one key step requested by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1): stopping enrichment of uranium to 20% U-235, the isotope that gives uranium its explosive power.

The western members of the P5+1 insisted, however, that Iran had to meet all three conditions contained in their proposal: stop 20% enrichment, ship out a stockpile of more than 100 kilograms of 20%-enriched uranium and close Fordo, a fortified enrichment facility built into a mountain near Qom.

That stance has led some P5+1 members to conclude that the United States hardened its position in Moscow compared to two earlier sessions in Baghdad and Istanbul, according to diplomatic briefings shared with Al-Monitor. […]

“Earlier, the US had implied that they were ready to address the three E3+3 demands … separately,” a briefing shared with Al-Monitor said, using the terminology Europeans employ for the P5+1. “However, this position had changed in Moscow,” where the US insisted “that the three demands should be treated inseparably, as a package.”

Indeed, after the P5+1 presented its proposal to Iran in Baghdad last month, Washington’s clear expectation was that Iran would not accept it as-is.

“There were two possible scenarios,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, in an interview with Al-Monitor Tuesday. “Either the P5+1’s proposal was no more than an opening salvo,” and it would be willing to negotiate better terms with Iran based on it during the next round, “or with tougher sanctions looming in the horizon, it was simply a take-it-or-leave-it offer. And it turned out in Moscow that Washington was not prepared to offer more.”

 

Go read the whole piece.

I also report that Bob Einhorn, the State Department Iran sanctions czar and a veteran nonproliferation expert, will lead the U.S. team participating in P5+1/Iran technical talks in Istanbul next week (July 3rd).

Iran’s team is expected to be led by Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, although that is not confirmed.

 

Shadow diplomacy

The EU’s Helga Schmid and Iran’s Ali Bagheri held meetings in Geneva May 6-7, a diplomatic source told the Back Channel.

The deputy nuclear negotiators for the P5+1 and Iran respectively are due to hold a second meeting this week, but I’ve been asked to hold off reporting the date and location as negotiators are seeking to minimize publicity for the preparatory talks. Schmid and Bagheri are meeting to prepare the agenda for the next round of Iran nuclear talks due to be held May 23rd in Baghdad.

As I noted in a column today, there has been a flurry of decidedly unpublicized diplomatic activity ahead of the next round of Iran nuclear talks, much of it taking place in the shadows: Continue reading

Iran nuclear talks prep meetings to get underway–quietly

My colleague Barbara Slavin hears from a well-placed Iranian source that the EU’s deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid and Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri are holding their first meeting this week to prepare for the next round of P5+1/Iran talks, which are due to take place in Baghdad on May 23rd.

A spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and deputy Schmid said that the office did not intend to announce such meetings or provide details, but also did not deny the meeting is taking place.

“Schmid and Bagheri are in regular contact to prepare for the next round of talks to be held on May 23 rd in Baghdad – as agreed in Istanbul,” a spokesperson for Ashton told me Monday.

Schmid and Bagheri are indeed meeting, but not in Brussels, another western diplomatic source who asked for anonymity indicated Monday.

Western negotiators have made clear that they believe more can be accomplished in the exceedingly hairy Iran nuclear talks process in such quiet meetings–out of the spotlight.

Meantime, Washington’s rep to the Iran P5+1 talks, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, was traveling in Europe last weekend, to attend the Daimler US-European Forum on Global Issues conference, held in Berlin May 3-4.

While in Berlin, Sherman also participated in an unannounced political directors meeting on Iran with her counterparts from France, Germany, and the UK, a source at the conference said. But Schmid wasn’t there, he said.

A State Department spokeswoman said last week that Sherman may participate in some of the unannounced preparatory meetings ahead of Baghdad. Continue reading

The matzo meter: Signs Israel and Turkey are getting friendlier

Elif Batuman reports in the New Yorker this week on Istanbul’s “phantom matzo factory” that operated in the city’s Galata neighborhood for thirty years, before being closed in 2007 and turned into an arts space:

A lot of people don’t know that, for nearly thirty years, Istanbul had its own working matzo factory, or that Istanbul still has its own non-working matzo factory. Known in Turkish as the “doughless oven,” located in Galata, on the northern bank of the Golden Horn, it has been given over to the arts. …

The machine had stopped running in 2007, after visiting rabbis found that some batches of matzo didn’t meet the regulations to be kosher. Maintaining the aging Turkish apparatus, with its frequent need of repairs and replacement parts, turned out to be more costly than importing matzo from Israel ….It might seem ironic to mass-produce and export a kind of bread that derives its importance from the fact that it was made on the run. Nonetheless, Israel now supplies all of Turkey’s matzo.

In Istanbul last month to cover the international Iran nuclear talks, I snapped the photo above of some of those Israeli matzohs for sale at a grocery store in Istanbul’s Nistantisi neighborhood.

While Israel and Turkey have been at odds in recent years in particular since the 2010 Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla violence, there are several recent signs that relations between the two countries are quietly improving. Israel this week downgraded its March warning to citizens about travel to Turkey to its lowest level–that of “continuing potential threat.”

Among other signs: Turkish authorities reportedly halted some “flytilla” activists at Turkish airports last month. Meantime, flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul were expanded to three a day last month, and Turkish budget airlines Pegasus reportedly added Tel Aviv to its routes. And commercial trade between the two nations rose to almost $4 billion in 2011–notably, with more of it consisting of consumer goods–software, foodstuffs, etc., rather than high-price-tag defense items.

Turkey’s Ambassador to the United States Namik Tan–who previously served as Ankara’s envoy to Israel–attended Israel’s Independence Day celebrations in Washington this week, where his presence was warmly welcomed by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.

“We very pleased to see [Turkish Amb ] @NamikTan here tonight,” Amb. Oren told Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir, he noted on twitter, in a post retweeted by the Israeli envoy. “We missed him a lot.” Continue reading

Welcome, introductions

Welcome to the Back Channel,  a reported blog on Washington foreign policy and the Middle East. Al Monitor is a new site dedicated to bringing more in-depth coverage and perspectives from the Middle East through original reporting as well as translations from media partners in the region, including in Turkey, Israel, Beirut and throughout the Arab world.

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