US sees opportunity in Iran election for progress in nuclear talks


The United States, encouraged by the signals sent by Iran’s election of Hassan Rouhani, hopes Iran engages seriously and gives a substantive response when nuclear talks resume in the fall, a senior U.S. administration official said Friday.

“We have all noted Rouhani’s positive tone and remarks post-election,” the senior U.S. administration official said in a small background conference call briefing Friday.

“We are glad for the positive words,” the official continued. “But what we are looking for are actions that indicate a desire to deal seriously with the P5+1. Words are not enough. We need a concrete response.”

The American official spoke ahead of a meeting of political directors from the P5+1–the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China–in Brussels next week (July 16th ) to discuss preparations for a new meeting with Iran in the fall. Talks between the P5+1 and Iran are likely to resume at the earliest in September, following the inauguration next month of Rouhani, and depending on the logistics of arranging a meeting around the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September.

The U.S. official said the six powers are inclined to ask the Iran nuclear negotiating team assembled under Rouhani’s administration to give a concrete response to a confidence building proposal they put forward at nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in February, rather than modify or expand it before meeting with the Iranians. But she stressed that it’s not a take it or leave it offer, but open for negotiation.

“We all believe that the proposal put on the table [in Almaty] is a good one, and there is still time and space to achieve a diplomatic solution over Iran’s nuclear program,” the official said.

“In terms of a more comprehensive proposal, if Iran says the confidence building measure is fine, but asks, where are we headed?” the official said, referring to some recent calls for the P5+1 to spell out a more detailed roadmap. “We already said to them…we do believe that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program under the NPT once it meets its responsibilities. And all sanctions will be lifted if and when it has met its responsibilities.”

“If Iran says, yes, we are interested in the CBM, but let’s talk about something larger. Alright,” the official continued. “If they say they are interested in all three measures on 20% [in the proposal], but are looking for more sanctions relief. ‘What are you looking for?” the official said, demonstrating how a negotiation over a serious Iranian counter-offer may go. “’Here’s what we want in return.’ This is a negotiation.”

“What this is really about is, the onus is on Iran, to give us some substantive, concrete response,” the official said.

The US official said the United States remains interested in bilateral talks with Iran, but didn’t indicate whether Washington was preparing a new message offering direct talks, perhaps on the occasion of Rouhani’s inauguration August 4th.

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Jalili seen as front runner as Iran bars Rafsanjani, Meshaei from June polls

Iran has disqualified former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad ally Esfandiar Rahim Meshaei from running in next month’s presidential elections, Iran’s state news television channel reported Tuesday, according to the BBC.

Iran’s Guardian Council has approved 8 candidates to run in next month’s polls, including top Iran nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili–widely seen as the regime's anointed front runner–and former Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, the BBC report said.

Other approved candidates, according to Fars News and reports on Twitter citing Iran State TV said, are: former Iran parliamentarian Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel–(whose daughter is married to the Supreme Leader's son Mojtaba); Tehran mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai, former Iran nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani–a Rafsanjani ally who serves as the Supreme Leader's representative to the Iran National Security Council; former Iranian vice president Mohammad-Reza Aref and former Iran telecommunications minister Mohammad Gharazi.

“The most important lesson of 2009 was that prevention is better than cure… better eliminating Rafsanjani and Mashaei now, than dealing with them later down the road,” Ali Vaez, Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Tuesday, referring to the Iranin regime's view of the violent unrest that followed disputed June 2009 presidential elections results, which opposition green candidates and many of their supporters believed were stolen.

“Uncharted waters,” an Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, said of the disqualification of Rafsanjani and tightly circumscribed slate of approved candidates. It's “very complex to predict what comes [next] and [how it] ends up.”

“Jalili is the absolute frontrunner and the one who has gained the most,” the analyst continued. “Unless [the Supreme Leader] issues a special order for [Rafsanjani's] inclusion, which I think he won't.”

Iranian authorities appear to have engineered a slow roll out of the decision–while severely curtailing Internet service over the past week–in order to discourage unrest from supporters of candidates who have been shut out.

The Guardian Council, whose spokesman hinted Monday that Rafsanjani would be disqualified over his age (78), reportedly informed Iran’s Ministry of Interior Tuesday of its decision, and the Interior Ministry is slated to publicly announce the approved slate on Wednesday.

“VPN's down, the Internet's down and it's pouring rain in Tehran and two disqualifications that will have long term consequences for Iran,” Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times correspondent in Tehran, wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “Tehran's quiet, it seems, as Rafsanjani and Meshaei are disqualified.”

Some Iranian analysts speculated earlier this week that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei might contemplate whether to step in and reinstate Rafsanjani’s candidacy in order to try to build legitimacy for the poll and increase voter turnout, but there were no signs yet on Tuesday whether he had any such intention.

“I think the Supreme Leader has decided to take the safe route to have the least uneventful election,” an Iranian academic, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel Tuesday. “Although I am still not ruling out his intervention at the last minute to throw Rafsanjani back into the race, though the chances seem low at this point.”

The restricted slate of approved candidates, however, “definitely will exacerbate the fissures within the ruling elites,” he continued.

(Photo: Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani arrives to register his candidacy in Tehran on May 11, 2013. AFP/File, Behrouz Mehri)


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

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

Iran FM says new nuclear talks Feb. 25

Iran’s Foreign Minister said Sunday that nuclear talks with six world powers will resume in Kazakhstan on February 25th. Western diplomats welcomed the remarks, but said they were still waiting for official confirmation from Iran’s nuclear negotiating team.

Ali Akbar Salehi, addressing the Munich Security Conference, said he’d heard the “good news” that agreement on the new P5+1 meeting date and location had been reached the day before.

A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said they hoped Salehi’s encouraging comments are soon officially confirmed by her formal counterpart on Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, Dr. Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

“Our latest proposal had indeed been Kazakhstan in the week of February 25 after other proposals had not worked,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said by email Sunday. “So it is good to hear that the Foreign Minister finally confirmed now. We hope the negotiating team will also confirm.”

“We aren’t fully there yet,” another western official cautioned Sunday, saying negotiators hope to lock in confirmation over the next day.

Iran’s foreign ministry does not take the lead in Iran nuclear negotiations, and Salehi has often presented a more conciliatory Iranian stance on the international stage.

Salehi also offered mild support for US Vice President Joe Biden’s comments asserting US willingness to hold direct talks with Iran, but was not committal about whether Iran would take up the offer.

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Report: Ex-Iran FM Mottaki slams Iran negotiating team

Former Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki has reportedly delivered a stinging assessment of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. He cast Iran's negotiators, in comments reported by Iranian news site Baztab, as amateurish and given to posturing, more obsessed with what city to hold nuclear talks, than in making diplomatic progress that could help relieve economic hardship suffered by the Iranian people.

“Is the chief [goal]…obtaining results and solving the problem of 75 million Iranians–or globe-trotting and entering third-party countries?” Baztab cited Mottaki, who served as Iran's foreign minister from 2005-2010.

Mottaki’s reported comments were removed from Baztab's website on Wednesday, but are available on another Persian language site. They appear to respond in part to information in a recent Back Channel report on the proposed negotiating stance put forward by a young advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, who previously served as political editor of Iran's hardline Kayhan newspaper.

“Amid 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 Back Channel reported January 22. “The author, Mahdi (or Mehdi) Mohammadi…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.”

Iran–under the proposal Mohammadi set out in Iran Review Jan. 9–would not begin to discuss curbing its 20% enrichment activities–a chief international demand–until after the lifting of US and European sanctions. Reacting to the proposal, former State Department nonproliferation official Mark Fitzpatrick said it suggests that “Iran is still in the opening salvo stages of negotiations, presenting its maximalist demands.”

Mottaki expressed exasperation at the posturing and “strange pre-conditions,” according to the Baztab report: “When a young journalist from Kayhan, with no experience in diplomacy and international relations, has become …a key member on the nuclear negotiation team, and introduces strange preconditions; what kind of result can we expect from nuclear talks?”

Mottaki also reportedly admonished Iran's nuclear negotiating team over its haggling with the P5+1 over the “marginal issue” of where to hold negotiations. Instead, he suggested, negotiators might better invest their energy in making diplomatic headway that could advance a negotiated settlement that benefits the Iranian people.

“Perhaps,” he reportedly proposed, negotiators should “choose a fixed location for negotiations in a non-partisan country, like Switzerland…and permanently solve the marginal issue of the negotiations' location, and prepare the way for addressing the core of the issue and solving the country's problem.”

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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 nuclear negotiators Ashton, Jalili to meet in Turkey

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will meet Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili for dinner in Turkey Tuesday night, European Union diplomatic sources confirmed to Al-Monitor Monday.

It will be the first face to face meeting between the chief international and Iranian nuclear negotiators since June.

The informal meeting “is part of continuing efforts to engage with Iran, led by the High Rep, and in line with the understandings reached at the negotiating round in Moscow in June,” a European diplomat told Al-Monitor Monday.

“While it is not a formal negotiating round, the meeting will be an opportunity to stress once again to Iran the need for an urgent and meaningful confidence building step and to show more flexibility with the proposals the E3+3 tabled in Baghdad,” a spokesperson for Ashton said.

Jalili arrived in Ankara for meetings with Turkish leaders Monday ahead of the Ashton dinner, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported Monday.

Western and Iranian analysts alike expressed low expectations for the outcome of the meeting, except to maintain a level of engagement.

“Considering the current circumstances, [the] dinner is just to give public CPR to the talks so they will be alive through November,” Iran analyst Mohammad Ali Shabani told Al-Monitor Monday.

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Diplomats confer ahead of Ashton-Jalili call

Diplomats from the 5+1 conferred Tuesday ahead of an expected conversation next week between the top international and Iran negotiators, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

Political directors from the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China held a conference call Tuesday with European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, to determine exactly what she should say when she speaks with Iran’s Saeed Jalili. An exact date for the Ashton-Jalili call has not been finalized. US negotiator Wendy Sherman, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, is in Washington this week, the State Department said, after traveling earlier this month to China, Russia and London for consultations with her P5+1 counterparts on Iran and Syria.

Iran’s hosting of the non-aligned movement summit in Tehran this week has consumed its diplomatic attention for the moment and pushed back the Ashton-Jalili conversation a few days. The extra time is just as well given the P5+1 Iran diplomacy having to contend with the potential wrench thrown into the negotiating calendar presented by recent Israeli saber-rattling on Iran. House Intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said Tuesday he thinks any Israel strike on Iran will come after the US presidential election, November 6.  Israeli official sources have offered the same suggestion to Al-Monitor in interviews this month. Israeli officials indicated that a decision has not yet been taken. Continue reading

Jalili reasserts Iran’s right to enrichment

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili told Iranian lawmakers Wednesday that the international community should take a more cooperative stance in order to advance negotiations with Tehran, and reasserted Iran’s right to enrichment for energy purposes.

“What has ended is the time of illogical pressure strategy, and on the opposite the time for dialogue and cooperation has started and the West should move in the direction of talks and cooperation strategy,” Jalili told an open session of Iran’s parliament, Iran’s FARS news agency reported.

“Based on the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty), enrichment is an inalienable right of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iran is a member of the NPT and if enrichment is for peaceful purposes, there will be no problem (restriction),” he said.

His comments come ahead of the next round of P5+1/Iran talks, due to take place in Moscow June 18-19th.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in meetings in Iran today ahead of Moscow hosting the talks, and also to discuss Syria. Russia–as well as UN/Arab League Syria envoy Kofi Annan–have pressed for Iran to be included in a contact  group on the Syria violence, but the United States has so far rejected the idea. Continue reading