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

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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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The P5+1 nuclear proposal to Iran in Almaty: Document

Six world powers presented an updated nuclear proposal to Iran at a meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February.

Here follows the P5+1’s Almaty confidence building proposal that was further discussed with Iran nuclear experts at technical talks in Istanbul on March 18th, and which remains on the table today.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson first reported on the details of the proposal, which he obtained from one of the negotiating parties, in April.

A western official, speaking not for attribution Sunday, confirmed to Al-Monitor the proposal is authentic.

The P5+1 confidence building proposal calls on Iran to suspend 20% enrichment; ship out the 20% stockpile it doesn’t require for medical use; agree to enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring; and suspend operations at, but not dismantle the cascades, at the fortified Fordow enrichment facility; for a period of six months. In return, it offers relief from United States and European Union sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals and petrochemical sales; the licensing of US repairs to Iran civilian aircraft; as well as to impose no new United Nations or EU proliferation sanctions.

If Iran agreed to the CBM proposal, “during the six months, negotiations would proceed on further steps, including a comprehensive long-term agreement that would restore the international community’s confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful, respect’s Iran’s rights to peaceful nuclear energy, and terminate sanctions,” the proposal states. “In return for further significant action by Iran to address concerns about its nuclear program, the U.S. and the EU would be prepared to take comparable action, including proportionate relief of oil sanctions.”

Al-Monitor previously reported (March 26) that Iran expressed willingness at the Istanbul technical talks to suspend 20% enrichment and continue converting its 20% stockpile to oxide. But it raised objections to other requested measures, including suspending lower level enrichment at Fordow, shipping out its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, and increased IAEA monitoring.

Iran issued a counter-proposal at the second day of Almaty2 talks April 6th, in which it said it would agree to suspend 20% enrichment and continue converting its stockpile of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas to oxide, in exchange for recognition of its right to enrich and a lifting of some banking sanctions, nonproliferation expert sources told Al-Monitor last month. Western officials characterized the Iranian counter-offer as asking for a lot, and offering very little.

Iran’s presidential candidates sharply challenged Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili at a televised campaign debate last week on why there had been no progress in nuclear talks. Notably, Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei and former Iranian foreign minister, derided Jalili as ineffective and pedantic, saying negotiating involves more than lecturing the other side about one’s positions, but getting results.

“You want to take three steps and you expect the other side to take 100 steps, this means that you don’t want to make progress,” Velayati chided Jalili in the June 7 debate, the Christian Science Monitor reported. “This is not diplomacy…. We can’t expect everything and give nothing.”

“What people are seeing, Mr. Jalili, is that you have not gone forward even one step, and the pressure of sanctions still exists,” Velayati added.

Jalili, who has served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator since 2007, refuted the criticism, saying that the Supreme Leader, briefed on the Almaty discussions, had approved of his negotiating stance.

The Almaty Confidence Building Proposal below the jump:

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When Iran's Saeed Jalili met one-on-one with US diplomat Bill Burns

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Even as Iran presidential candidate and presumed frontrunner Saeed Jalili has flaunted his anti-US hardliner credentials on the campaign trail, it’s worth noting a less remarked-upon aspect of his professional resume. In October 2009, Jalili became one of the only Iranian officials to meet one-on-one with a US diplomat in three decades.

The meeting, with then Under Secretary of State William Burns, now the US Deputy Secretary of State, took place October 1, 2009, at a villa outside Geneva, on the sidelines of Iran nuclear negotiations with six world powers.

Lead US negotiator Burns and Iran’s Jalili held a “one-on-one sidebar conversation,” a White House spokesman confirmed at the time. “The sidebar occurred at the Villa”–Villa Le Saugy, in the Swiss countryside village of Genthod–during a lunch break in the nuclear talks with the so-called P5+1.

Iran and six world powers announced tentative agreement at the Geneva meeting on a nuclear fuel swap deal that would provide fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor in exchange for shipping out most of Iran’s stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium; but the deal later broke down at follow up technical talks in Vienna.

Iran also agreed at the Geneva talks to let IAEA inspectors visit the secret Fordo enrichment facility at Qom, whose discovery the leaders of the United States, UK and France had jointly announced just days before, at a G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.

“Iran is on notice that when we meet with them on Oct. 1 they are going to have to come clean and they will have to make a choice,” President Barack Obama, flanked by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said September 25, 2009.

In retrospect, it seems plausible that the Iranians agreed to the sit-down with the Americans in Geneva as a tactical gesture, out of concern over the western reaction to the discovery of the Qom enrichment facility, which Iran only hastily declared to the IAEA after it realized it had been discovered. But one Iranian source, speaking not for attribution, said the political decision in Tehran to hold the bilateral meeting with the Americans had already been taken.

Following the Geneva meeting, US envoys subsequently briefed foreign allies “that the U.S. sidebar meeting with Iranian representatives was direct and candid,” according to an October 5, 2009 US diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Manilla that was released by Wikileaks. While “the discussions were a constructive beginning,” the US envoys also relayed, “they must now be followed by positive action.”

“Iranian press gave considerable coverage to the bilateral meeting between [Under Secretary] Burns and Jalili,” another October 4, 2009 US diplomatic cable, sent from the U.S.'s Iran regional presence office in Dubai, noted. “While little coverage went beyond the Department's announcement that the meeting had taken place, Tabnak noted that unlike Iran's previous discussions on the nuclear issue, this time it was face-to-face with the US.” Another Iranian paper described the meeting as “unprecedented,” the US diplomatic cable continued.

Jalili’s deputy, Ali Bagheri–who has lately been accompanying Jalili on the campaign trail–acknowledged the Jalili-Burns sidebar meeting in an interview with Iran’s state television at the time, but stressed the meeting occurred only at the Americans’ insistence.

“The meeting of the US delegation with the Iranian delegation was held at the request of the Americans,” Bagheri, now deputy of the Iran Supreme National Security Council, told Iran’s state-run TV, Fars News reported at the time, adding: “Elaborating on the contents of sideline talks between the Iranian and American delegations, Baqeri said that the meeting was held merely within the framework of Iran's proposed package.”

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

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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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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