EU, Iran reach agreement on implementing nuclear deal

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Diplomats from Iran and the European Union said Friday that they were able to reach agreement on implementing the Iran nuclear accord. Pending review by capitals of six world powers, an announcement on a start date for the accord to go into force could come as soon as the weekend.

Negotiators “made very good progress on all the pertinent issues,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU, said Friday. “This is now under validation at political level in capitals.”

The announcement came after two days of talks in Geneva between European Union deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.  Lead US negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, accompanied by her non-proliferation advisor James Timbie and Treasury Department’s Adam Szubin, also held bilateral meetings in Geneva Thursday with Araghchi’s team as well as met with Schmid, the State Department said.

“A final decision is to be made in capitals and a result to be announced within the next two days, ” Araghchi told Iranian media Friday.

The progress in Geneva came as Iran sanctions legislation opposed by the White House had by Friday attracted a total of 59 Senate co-sponsors, not yet the 67 needed to override a presidential veto.

But notably, the bill has gotten mostly GOP support, attracting only two Democrats and 25 Republicans as co-sponsors since it was first introduced last month by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois). Continue reading

Kerry: Opportunity for Iran diplomacy cracking open

hile aides say Secretary of State John Kerry has no plans to attend Iran nuclear talks with six world powers due to get underway in Geneva Tuesday, there are hints Kerry may decide to do so on his own, or to pursue a follow up meeting with his Iranian counterpart soon.

“Yes, there is a chance, but no decision has been made and, for now, it is not happening,” one US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Sunday. “His aides are advising no, but Kerry often makes these types of calls on his own.”

Kerry “has no plans” to come to Geneva, a State Department official said Sunday.

Kerry met with chief international negotiator, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, in London Sunday, to discuss the upcoming Iran talks, Syria, and Middle East peace, the State Department said. He is scheduled to travel next to Paris.

“Right now, the window for diplomacy is cracking open,” Kerry said in videotaped remarks to a national conference of the American Israel Public Affairs (AIPAC) meeting in California Sunday. “But I want you to know that our eyes are open too.”

“I hope that we can agree on a road map for arriving at an agreement by Wednesday,” Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who also heads lran's nuclear negotiating team, wrote on his Facebook page Sunday. “But even if the other side shows goodwill, agreeing on details and implementation would require another cabinet level meeting.”

The U.S. team to the Geneva Iran talks is led by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and imcludes her top deputy and veteran nonproliferation expert Jim Timbie, State Department Iran sanctions principal deputy Richard Nephew, National Security Staff senior director for Persian Gulf Affairs Puneet Talwar, Treasury sanctions lawyer Adam Szubin, State Department Iran spokesman Alan Eyre, and State Department deputy spokesman Marie Harf, the State Department said.

Update: Secretary of State John Kerry is flying back to Washington from London Monday, his spokespeople said

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Will Iran go big in Geneva?

img class=”alignnone” alt=”” src=”http://www.recorder.com/csp/mediapool/sites/dt.common.streams.StreamServer.cls?STREAMOID=bdH4IVCTORK9hP0yivIAys$daE2N3K4ZzOUsqbU5sYvRaI2fZFCyu3NwSYv15WjAWCsjLu883Ygn4B49Lvm9bPe2QeMKQdVeZmXF$9l$4uCZ8QDXhaHEp3rvzXRJFdy0KqPHLoMevcTLo3h8xh70Y6N_U_CryOsw6FTOdKL_jpQ-&CONTENTTYPE=image/jpeg” width=”561″ height=”351″ />Some current and former western diplomats said Friday that they think Iran plans to put a broad and substantive offer on the table at nuclear talks with six world powers in Geneva next week, even as Iran’s top diplomat took to Twitter Friday to urge patience amid mounting speculation about what Iran may propose.

“We will present our views, as agreed, in Geneva, not before,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter Friday. “No Rush, No Speculations Please (of course if you can help it!!!)”

There's some expectation that Iran could present a broader, “more coherent and better articulated” proposal than previously, a western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Friday.

Among the elements it is thought that Iran's proposed package could include, he said: suspending 20% uranium enrichment, and reducing its 20% stockpile, probably by continuing to convert it to oxide; limiting the number of centrifuges enriching, if not installed. It may offer to freeze the situation at the Fordo enrichment facility, built inside a fortified bunker, or switch cascades currently enriching to 20% to 3.5% there. It may also express willingness to accept more safeguards and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return, Iran is expected to ask for substantial sanctions relief, including finance and oil-related sanctions.

“My understanding is that Javad Zarif will…lay out a plan that will basically say, ‘Look, we want to do what is necessary, beginning now and ending in a year’s time, to assure everybody here that we don’t want… a nuclear weapon,’” William Luers, a former veteran US diplomat who directs The Iran Project, told journalists on a press call Friday.

“The impression I get from talking to both Zarif and [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani is that they have made a decision that they want to open up their economy to the world again, and are prepared to do substantial things to make that happen,” Luers said. “And they will say, ‘We want to know what you will do in terms of sanctions relief.’”

As near term steps, Luers said he thought Zariif would suggest that Iran is “prepared to either cease or reduce substantially” 20% enrichment, “do something serious about Fordo, short of locking it up,” and to agree to not bring on-line new centrifuges. He also anticipated Iran would offer to provide more access to the IAEA, as well as to take some unspecified action on the Arak heavy water reactor that Israel fears could give Iran a second route to acquire fissile material that could be used in a nuclear weapon.

Former US Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, however, urged lowering expectations about what Iran brings to Geneva, given his past experience, which includes negotiating with the Iranians in Geneva in 2001 and in Iraq in 2007.

“While I would like to think that the P5+1 talks with Iran are going to result in a concrete Iranian proposal on what they are prepared to do, but given the history of these talks, and multilateral diplomatic efforts generally, I am not overly optimistic,” Crocker said on the press call Friday.

Crocker said he thinks it’s more likely that Iranian negotiators in Geneva will say–much as they did in New York last month–that “Iran does not seek a nuclear weapons program. That it insists on its right to a peaceful nuclear energy program under international oversight. And that it insists on its right to enrichment at levels that are internationally acceptable,” he said.

“If we get much beyond that, I will be pleasantly surprised,” Crocker said.

He said he thought more progress could be made in direct talks between Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry than in the seven-nation talks between the P5+1 and Iran.

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US Iran team shuffles as nuclear talks set to resume


President Obama this week nominated top White House Iran advisor Puneet Talwar to be Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs, as the Back Channel reported in July was expected.

The promotion for Talwar, who has served since 2009 as the National Security Council Senior Director for Iran, Iraq and the Persian Gulf affairs, would mark the latest departure of a key member of the U.S. Iran negotiating team as the U.S. prepares to resume P5+1 nuclear talks with the new Iranian Hassan Rouhani administration in the coming weeks, after a five month hiatus.

Rob Malley, a former Clinton administration NSC Middle East advisor, is expected to join the NSC, succeeding Talwar after his confirmation, as the Back Channel previously reported was under consideration. The White House declined to comment. Malley didn’t respond to a query.

But several sources suggested that Malley may not play the same role on Iran issues as Talwar, and that National Security Advisor Susan Rice would like to bring Malley to the White House to help rethink how the National Security Staff Middle East work is organized. Malley has already been informally advising the State Department on Syria from the outside, officials tell the Back Channel.

Also expected to join the NSC as a director on Gulf affairs is Elisa Catalano, Rice’s former Iran/Gulf advisor at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in New York, and a former special assistant to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.

Sources said they were still uncertain who from the White House might be part of the U.S. delegation to the P5+1 talks with Iran, led by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. Talwar has accompanied Sherman as the +1 to most of the political directors meetings with the Europeans and P5+1 for the past few years. Former White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore, who left the administration early this year for Harvard, was also a key member of the U.S. delegation to both the P5+1 political and technical talks with Iran, along with former State Department Iran arms control envoy Robert Einhorn, who left the administration this summer for Brookings. Sherman has selected longtime State Department nonproliferation advisor Jim Timbie to be her top Iran arms control deputy, succeeding Einhorn, officials said.

Beyond their formal functions, Talwar, Samore and Einhorn have served as key points of contact for informal consultations among the foreign diplomatic, arms control and Iran expert communities seeking to confer with the administration.

American officials are preparing with their P5+1 counterparts to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month to agree on arrangements for resuming nuclear talks with Iran. Western officials are still waiting to see what kind of response to the P5+1’s offer new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif may bring to the table, when nuclear talks finally resume.

Iranian sources suggested this week that Iran might be willing to limit the number of its centrifuges, but not the quality of them; cap enrichment at 5%; accept a more intrusive IAEA inspection and safeguards regime; and sign the Additional Protocol, in return for significant sanctions relief, recognition of its legal right to enrich to 5%, and additional, unspecified incentives put forward by three European powers in a past proposal.

(Photo: President Barack Obama is briefed by Puneet Talwar, Senior Director for Iraq, Iran and the Gulf States, in the Oval Office, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

P5+1 seeks ‘clear and concrete’ response from Iran in Almaty

20130404-101537.jpgAlmaty, Kazakhstan__ Western diplomats said Thursday they hope Iran comes here with a “clear and concrete” response to a revised international proposal aimed at curbing Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work.

“What would be most helpful is for Iran to give us concrete responses, what they think they’re willing to do on this proposal, what gives them concerns, …[to] get into a real and substantive negotiation,” a senior US administration official told journalists in a conference late Wednesday ahead of boarding a flight to Kazakhstan. “I’m hopeful that they will do that.”

“We would of course like them to come and say, ‘We accept the proposal. Now let’s work out the details,’” the American official continued. “But that’s not usually the way these things work. … That’s why you’re in a negotiation to begin with.”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton “calls upon Iran to give a clear and concrete answer to the E3/EU+3′s Almaty proposal,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for Ashton, said Thursday.

Diplomats from Iran and six world powers are gathering here ahead of the third set of nuclear talks in the past five weeks, which are due to get underway Friday. International negotiators presented a revised international proposal at high level talks held in Almaty in February, and then held technical talks in Istanbul last month.

The Iranian negotiating team is expected on Friday to present a response to the latest P5+1 proposal, that includes Iran’s suggested steps, an Iranian source suggested Thursday. Iran’s counter proposal will aim “to test” western intentions, he said.

“We think our talks tomorrow can go forward with one word,” Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said in a talk to Kazakh university students Wednesday. “That is the acceptance of the rights of Iran, particularly the right of enrichment.”

Striking a familiar theme, Jalili also criticized nuclear armed world powers that seek to limit other countries’ nuclear rights. “No country should have a nuclear weapon,” Jalili said.

Despite the tough tone, western diplomats said Iranian technical experts were particularly engaged and focused on substantive details at technical talks held in Istanbul March 18th that went on for twelve hours. The Iranian technical team was not authorized to negotiate, however, the American diplomat said, but rather to seek more information and clarification on the international proposal.

The Iranian team, in Istanbul, indicated Tehran was considering an international request to suspend 20% enrichment for six months, and to continue converting Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium to oxide for medical use, a diplomatic source told Al-Monitor last month. However, the Iranian team expressed objections to other elements in the international proposal, the diplomat said. Among them: suspending other operations at the Fordo facility except 20% enrichment, shipping out its 20% stockpile, and increased IAEA inspections.

Iranian diplomats have also said that while they consider the revised international proposal an improvement from one presented in Baghdad last year, they still find it “imbalanced” between its demands and the incentives it offers.

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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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Iran diplomat offers tentatively positive take on Almaty talks


Almaty, Kazakhstan__An Iranian diplomat, in an interview with Al-Monitor, offered a cautiously positive take on the nuclear talks that got underway in Kazakhstan Tuesday, though he said Iran still considers that a new international proposal asks more of Iran than it offers.

“We think in Almaty the whole frame is positive, because we are going to discuss the principles [and] specifics,” the Iranian official, who did not wish to be named, told Al-Monitor shortly after nuclear talks got underway here Tuesday. “We believe that until now, there has not really been a negotiation.”

“I can’t say what will be the outcome,” the official continued. “But we think the outcome should be some technical meetings.” That would seem to correspond with what Western diplomats said Monday, that they were hoping to have a follow up meeting, or a series of follow up meetings, with the Iranians at the technical experts level, ideally beginning before Iran’s Nowruz New Year’s holiday in March.

Both Iran and the P5+1 agree that a comprehensive deal “is not possible right now, so both sides are trying to solve one part of it,” the Iranian diplomat said. “Both sides agree on which part to solve right now,” as a first step, focused on Iran’s 20% enrichment activities, he said.

From Iran’s perspective, he continued, however, “the problem is, what the P5+1 wants to give us is not [balanced with] their requests.”

The updated P5+1 proposal formally presented to Iran Tuesday includes some sanctions relief on the gold trade, petrochemical industry, and some small scale banking sanctions, according to a source close to the talks who received a copy of it late Monday from a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Al-Monitor first reported earlier Tuesday.

“We have come here with a revised offer and we have come to engage with Iran in a meaningful way, our purpose being to make sure that we’ve had a good and detailed conversation, with the ambition that we see progress by the end of the meeting,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said ahead of the first round of talks Tuesday.

The revised international offer is “balanced” and “responsive” to what the six powers heard from the Iranians in three rounds of talks last year, Michael Mann, spokesman for Ashton, told journalists at a press briefing in Almaty Tuesday.

Talks got underway Tuesday at 1:30pm and broke off at about 4:30pm. Western officials later confirmed that there had been further consultations among the parties, including Iranian bilateral meetings with the Germans, British, Chinese and Russians, a diplomat said.

Talks will resume for a second day Wednesday, starting with a bilateral meeting between Ashton and Jalili, followed by a plenary session at 11am.

“We had a useful meeting today, discussions took place this evening, we are meeting again tomorrow,” a western official said late Tuesday.

The U.S. delegation to the talks is led by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and includes National Security Staff Senior Director for the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar, State Department arms control envoy Robert Einhorn, another State Department arms control advisor Jim Timbie, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer, and a veteran Farsi-speaking US diplomat who specializes in Iranian affairs Alan Eyre.

Iran’s delegation includes the Secretary of Supreme National Security Council Dr. Saeed Jalili, his deputy Ali Bagheri, legal/nonproliferation advisor Hamid-Reza Asgari,, the head of the Iranian foreign ministry IPIS think tank Mostafa Dolatyar, Iran deputy foreign minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi, and former Iranian ambassador to the UK Rasoul Movahedian-Atar.

(Photo: Participants sit at a table during talks on Iran's nuclear programme in Almaty February 26, 2013. REUTERS/Stanislav Filippov/Pool.)

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