US, Iran to hold bilateral nuclear talks in Geneva

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US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will lead a US delegation to meet with Iranian nuclear negotiators in Geneva on June 9-10, US and Iranian officials said Saturday.

The bilateral meetings come as negotiators intensify efforts to see if they can reach a final nuclear accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires, or if they will need to extend the talks for another six months.

“We believe we need to engage in as much active diplomacy as we can to test whether we can reach a diplomatic solution with Iran on its nuclear program,” a senior U.S. administration official said Saturday, noting that the US-Iran consultations “come at an important juncture” of the negotiations, as the “talks are intensifying.”

The meetings are taking place “in the context of the intensified E3/EU+3 negotiating process,” and are coordinated by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, her spokesman Michael Mann said Saturday. Ashton’s deputy, EU political director Helga Schmid will join the US Iran consultations in Geneva, he said, and other bilaterals will follow in the next days.

The US delegation will include, in addition to Burns and Sherman, Vice President Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan, deputy US negotiator Amb. Brooke Amderson, senior arms control advisor Jim Timbie, and NSC senior Middle East advisor Rob Malley, among others, a State Department official told Al-Monitor.

Iran will hold separate meetings with Russian negotiators in Rome on June 11-12, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported Saturday.

20140607-102130.jpgIranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi on Saturday announced that Iran would hold bilateral meetings at the deputy foreign minister level ahead of the next P5+1 Iran nuclear talks, due to be held in Vienna June 16-20.

Burns led a secret US diplomatic “back channel” to Iran last year that culminated in the signing of the interim nuclear deal, known as the Joint Plan of Action, in Geneva last November. Burns’ secret team included Sullivan as well as then NSC Persian Gulf advisor Puneet Talwar, now assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, who has been succeeded by Malley. Burns has announced he will retire in October. The EU’s Ashton, the lead international negotiator for the six world powers, is also due to finish her term in October, adding impetus to complete the negotiations by then.

20140607-104205.jpgUntil now, the US and Iran have not pursued the bilateral channel to advance final deal talks this year, outside of meetings on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran negotiations in Vienna, US and Iranian officials have said. Notably, unlike the secret US-Iran meetings held in Oman, Geneva and New York last year, the US-Iran meeting in Geneva Monday was announced by both sides.

US officials said Saturday it made sense to bring the bilateral channel negotiators involved in advancing the interim deal last fall into the discussions at this critical time.

“It’s natural for Bill and Jake to join the delegation for this meeting given their history of negotiating with Iran during the Joint Plan of Action talks,” the US official said, referring to Burns and Sullivan. “The elements now under discussion in our negotiations over a comprehensive solution were part of the JPOA. So it just makes sense.”

“If a deal is going to be possible by July 20, the Americans and Iranians have to get down to real, no-kidding bottom lines now, and then go back to the P5+1 with the broad outlines of the deal,” former top Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told Al-Monitor Saturday. “These bilateral talks will probably determine whether a July 20 agreement is possible or whether we need to work out an extension.”

“The Iranians, in particular, need to come back with much more flexibility on enrichment, and the U.S. team will also need some creative ideas to address Iran’s ‘practical needs’ argument,” Kahl, now a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), said, referring to the amount of enrichment capacity Iran will need to fuel power reactors and produce medical isotopes.

Iran, in turn, is concerned about the pace of sanctions relief in a final deal, and has balked at a P5+1 proposal that would unwind sanctions on a phased, step by step basis, over as long as a decade or two. Iran also wants to limit the amount of time it would be required to submit to highly intrusive inspections and transparency measures that it fears could be abused by adversaries to snoop on its defense capabilities.

“The addition of Burns and Sullivan, who were essential to the success of behind-the-scenes diplomacy last year, and the bilateral nature of the talks suggests something may be up,” a former senior U.S. official told Al-Monitor Saturday.

“Together with recent news that [Iran Supreme Leader] Khameini is telling hardline critics to get in line behind Iran’s negotiating team, it seems to suggest that negotiations are entering a very serious phase,” the former American official said.

(Top photo of US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns in Wiesbadden in February, 2009 by Reuters. Second photo of US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in Geneva in November, 2013. Third photo: Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, deputy Iranian negotiators Majid Ravanchi and Abbas Araghchi at a P5+1 Iran meeting at the United Nations in New York September 24, 2013.)

Ex envoy Ford says could not defend US Syria policy

Recently retired US Syria envoy Robert Ford told CNN Tuesday that he resigned because he could not defend US policy on Syria.

“I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend American policy,” former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Tuesday.

“We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting…and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat,” said Ford, who resigned in March from the State Department after a three decade diplomatic career.

There is “nothing we can point to that has been very successful to in our policy except the removal of about 93% of some of Assad’s chemicals, but now he is using chlorine gas against his opponents,” Ford said. “The regime simply has no credibility, and our policy is not addressing the Syrian crisis as it needs to.”

Of the growing extremism threat from Syria, Ford said that he and unspecified colleagues had warned more than two years ago that Syria would prove fertile ground for terrorists.

“We warned even as long as two years ago that terrorist groups would go into that vacuum, as we had seen in places like Afghanistan and Somalia and Yemen and Mali,” Ford said. “This is not rocket science.”

Ford said Tuesday that increased US support earlier on in the conflict to moderate Syrian opposition forces could have helped prevent extremists from getting such a big foothold in Syria. And he cast doubt on whether the increased efforts President Obama seemed to be considering ahead of his foreign policy speech at West Point last week would be enough.

“It’s not clear to me yet if they are prepared to ramp up (assistance) in a such a way that would be meaningful on the ground and that’s what matters,” Ford told PBS’s Margaret Warner in a separate interview Tuesday.

Ford, until his retirement one of the State Department’s top Arabists who previously served as US Ambassador to Algeria and deputy US Ambassador to Iraq, is slated to join the Middle East Institute as a senior fellow. He could not immediately be reached Tuesday.

Ford is hardly the first Syria mediator to quit in frustration. UN/Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi resigned last month, as did his predecessor Kofi Annan before him. Former US envoy on Syria transition issues Frederic Hof, who quit in 2012, has also become an outspoken critic of US Syria policy.

As to why Ford had not previously voiced such criticisms in the three months since he resigned, Hof noted in March that Ford was still on the government payroll and required to adhere to official policy and talking points. Ford “will likely speak out when he is free to do so,” Hof, now at the Atlantic Council, wrote.

“For quite some time, the only things keeping Robert in harness were Secretary Kerry’s pleas and Robert’s hope that Kerry could change the policy,” a former diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel Tuesday. “In the end he concluded he could no longer serve as apologist-in-chief for a rhetoric-based policy fundamentally unaligned with ground truth in Syria.”

Meantime, in Syria Tuesday, Bashar al-Assad was expected to be declared the winner in presidential polls being run in government-held parts of the country, in elections that the US and western nations have condemned as farcical and illegitimate. Iran, Russia and North Korea have reportedly sent observers to the polls to try to bolster the appearance of legitimacy.

Centrifuge R&D seen as holdup in implementing Iran nuclear deal

Differing interpretations over whether Iran can conduct research on more advanced centrifuges under a nuclear deal signed last month is among the key issues to be resolved for the agreement to enter into force, nonproliferation experts suggested Sunday.

Technical experts from Iran and six world powers are scheduled to resume talks on implementing the Joint Plan of Action in Geneva on Monday, December 30th.

“What may be happening here is that Iran has notified the P5+1 that it plans to install additional IR-2M centrifuges at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Facility at Natanz where it has historically conducted centrifuge research and development,” Jofi Joseph, a former US official who worked on Iran nuclear issues, told Al-Monitor.

“Throughout the diplomatic talks that culminated in the Geneva agreement, Iran has insisted upon the right to continue unfettered research and development for its centrifuge program that should fall outside any limits on its centrifuges producing enriched uranium,” said Joseph, who recently wrote about potential pitfalls to the Nov. 24 interim Iran nuclear deal at the Atlantic Council website. “The P5+1 always pushed back, seeking to protect against a scenario where Iran could use this R&D loophole as a back door to expand its centrifuge capacity even as a [confidence building measure] CBM agreement took effect.”

The Joint Plan of Action, signed by Iran and the P5+1 November 24th, states that: “Iran will continue its safeguarded R&D practices, including its current enrichment R&D practices, which are not designed for accumulation of the enriched uranium.”

“The P5+1 likely interprets this language to mean that Iran will not expand the level, scope,or sophistication of its centrifuge R&D beyond existing practice,” Joseph suggested. “While Iran probably takes a more expansive view, arguing instead that, so long as it not expanding the numbers or types of centrifuges in the production-related areas of Natanz or Fordow, it remains in compliance with the Geneva agreement.”

Iranian negotiators did not respond to a query from Al-Monitor Saturday if that was the main issue holding up the JPA entering into force. But Iranian officials seemed to allude to the matter in comments to Iranian news media this week. “A new generation of centrifuges is being built, but they should undergo all tests before mass production,” Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and MIT-educated former Iranian foreign minister, was cited by Iranian news media as saying Sunday.

“The negotiations are proceeding slowly as there are misunderstandings over interpretation of some elements of the accord,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister and deputy nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi told Mehr News Agency, the AFP reported Sunday, adding that “ff expert-level talks are fruitful, a date [for implementing the deal] will be decided, which I guess will be at the end of January.”

The parties should be able to resolve such ambiguities and differences to make way for the JPA entering into force, nonproliferation expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Al-Monitor in an interview Sunday.  “This is not a technical problem,” Hibbs said. “There’s a huge amount of documentation – reams and reams and reams of technical discussion between Iran and the US, [on] how to do this….[there are] lots of ways of skinning the cat.”

Negotiators in Geneva last fall, led by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, made the deal in a hurry. “Now what they need to do is nail down all the technical details,” Hibbs said. “What needs to happen [to] close on some of this stuff is just very complicated…for example, verification procedures…questions about what specific piping they have to inspect, who gets access, all these things.”

“The real problem is not that there cannot be a technical solution. Because there can,” Hibbs said. “The real problem is [that] the absence of closure on technical details [could] reignite all of the latent lack of trust.”

But he did not think the parties would let the agreement break down. The Obama administration sees the agreement as “confidence-building; there’s a premium on deal-making,” Hiibbs said. “And the Iranians, like anyone else, want to get the best deal they can.”

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations Palais in Geneva November 24, 2013. Credit: REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool.)

Senate Egypt bill could ease US aid after coup

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to introduce an Egypt aid bill Wednesday that if passed could set a precedent for loosening current restrictions on US assistance to post-coup countries, Congressional sources tell Al-Monitor.

Sen. Robert Menendez  (D-NJ), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is expected to introduce the bill, called the Egypt Assistance Reform Act of 2013, at a SFRC business meeting or Wednesday.  The bill is listed as the first item on the published agenda  for the committee meeting.

A senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution Tuesday, said the bill is expected to pass, but it isn’t clear that Menendez has a vehicle to bring it to the floor before the end of the week, after which Congress is expected to go on break. The real test will be the continuing resolution or the omnibus in early January, the official said.

The bill, while geared to Egypt, could have wider implications for US defense/security and economic assistance to post coup countries universally, one Congressional staffer, speaking not for attribution, said. If passed, it would virtually eliminate the restrictions of Section 7008, which currently prevents aid to post coup countries, by offering a framework for a waiver, which could be renewed. The Congressional staffer suggested the Obama White House had been closely involved in drafting the text of the legislation with the SFRC.

“We are continuing to work with the Congress to ensure we obtain the funding and authorities necessary to provide assistance for Egypt, consistent with the approach we outlined earlier this year,” Bernadette Meehan, spokesperson for the National Security Council, told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

A spokesman for the SFRC majority staff contacted by Al-Monitor Tuesday evening said he may not be able to get guidance on the matter before Wednesday.  A spokesman for ranking SFRC Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee could not immediately be reached Tuesday.

The proposed bill would provide “the administration a legislative roadmap forward for U.S. assistance to continue to Egypt despite current legal restrictions on aid to countries where a military coup d’état has taken place,” a summary of the draft bill provided to Al-Monitor states. Continue reading

Text: ‘Joint Plan of Action’ signed by Iran, P5+1 in Geneva

The US National Security Council released this text of the Joint Plan of Action on the nuclear agreement signed by six world powers and Iran in Geneva, November 24, 2013.

Full text below, as sent by the NSC below:

Joint Plan of Action

Preamble

The goal for these negotiations is to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful. Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons. This comprehensive solution would build on these initial measures and result in a final step for a period to be agreed upon and the resolution of concerns. This comprehensive solution would enable Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the NPT in conformity with its obligations therein. This comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the programme. This comprehensive solution would constitute an integrated whole where nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. This comprehensive solution would involve a reciprocal, step-bystep process, and would produce the comprehensive lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions, as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme.

There would be additional steps in between the initial measures and the final step, including, among other things, addressing the UN Security Council resolutions, with a view toward bringing to a satisfactory conclusion the UN Security Council’s consideration of this matter. The E3+3 and Iran will be responsible for conclusion and implementation of mutual near-term measures and the comprehensive solution in good faith. A Joint Commission of E3/EU+3 and Iran will be established to monitor the implementation of the near-term measures and address issues that may arise, with the IAEA responsible for verification of nuclear-related measures. The Joint Commission will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern. Continue reading

Diplomat says P5+1 divided over draft Iran accord

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Geneva__ Iran and world powers were supposed to resume ministerial level talks here Saturday morning but the western powers in the P5+1 are divided and were meeting among themselves, a senior diplomat involved in the talks told al-Monitor in an interview Saturday.

“It is obvious, there are serious differences” among the P5+1, the senior diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said. “We were supposed to restart negotiations at 8:30am, but the western side is divided.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry was supposed to resume meetings with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Saturday morning after a five hour meeting Friday that diplomats described as productive. But instead, the State Department said Saturday that Kerry would first meet with Ashton and three European counterparts, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Ashton was then scheduled to meet with Fabius and Zarif.

“In fact, the French are the big upset in the way of an agreement,” the senior diplomat said, on condition his name or nationality not be named.

He said there is a joint P5+1 draft text of a framework agreement the parties have been working on. Good progress was being made, including in the five hour trilateral meeting between Kerry, Zarif and Ashton Friday.

But the French say it is not our text, the diplomat said, a point which Fabius himself subsequently confirmed.

“There is an initial text that we do not accept,” Fabius told France’s Inter radio Saturday morning, according to a translation provided by a French reporter here. “There are several points that we are not satisfied with,” concerning the Arak heavy water facility and Iran’s stockpiles of 20% uranium. “How can we go down to 5% enrichment that is less dangerous. If those questions will no be addressed it will not be possible [to reach agreement]. I wants a deal but we have to be careful not to be played for fools.”

“The question of the Iranian nuclear issue is very important for international security,” Fabius told journalists here Saturday after leaving a meeting with Ashton, Kerry and his European counterparts. “But there are still the important points on which we have to work. I still hope there will be an agreement, but there are still things we have to” resolve.

France’s concerns were reported to center on wanting Iran to halt work on the Arak heavy water facility during the negotiations, as well as on Iran’s stockpile of 20% uranium.

Another P5+1 diplomat told Al-Monitor Saturday that no one is telling the diplomats here what is going on, describing the situation as ‘outrageous.’

Asked about the complaints of a chaotic situation, a spokesperson for Ashton said all of the parties here are working very hard and are making progress.

“The E3+3 continues to work together intensively to make progress on the Iranian nuclear file,” Michael Mann said. “There are a number of meetings going on. And regular debriefings. ”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived here Saturday around 11am to join the talks. He decided to come only late Friday, concerned about an unspecified hitch that had developed in the talks in the afternoon, another diplomat said late Friday.

The Chinese foreign minister is also expected to arrive later Saturday afternoon, reports citing Chinese state radio said.

After talks with Kerry and the Europeans Saturday morning, Kerry, Zarif and Ashton were to resume trilateral talks. It’s still unclear if an agreement will be reached here at this meeting which has extended into a third day, or if talks to sign a possible framework deal will require a subsequent meeting or meetings.

(Photo of US Secretary of State John Kerry, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and his deputies Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht-Ravanchi, by Fars News. Also pictured, US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and nonproliferation James Timbie; and Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid.)

Obama calls Iran's Rouhani

Ex Says Never Getting Back Together Lyrics

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New York__ President Obama spoke by phone with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani Friday, officials from both countries said, another remarkable gesture in a week in which US and Iranian leaders moved tentatively to test opportunities to forge more direct contacts in and out of the public spotlight.

“Just now, I spoke on the phone with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Obama said in a hastily arranged press conference Friday. “The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program….While there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward, and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution.”

The 15-minute phone call–the first between presidents of the two countries since 1979–was initiated by Obama at 2:30pm Friday as Rouhani was wrapping up his four day trip to New York, after the Iranians reached out Friday to express interest in a call, US and Iranian officials said. It came a day after Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also made history, by meeting one on one Thursday for half an hour, on the sidelines of six party nuclear talks.

Obama, in the call, congratulated Rouhani on his election, and urged that the two leaders seize the opportunity for a nuclear deal, a senior US administration official said Friday. A “breakthrough on the nuclear issue could open the door to a [more constructive] relationship between the US and Iran,” the US official summarized.

“The Iranian and US presidents underlined the need for a political will for expediting resolution of West’s standoff with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program,” Alireza Miryusefi, a spokesperson for the Iranian mission to the UN, said in a statement Friday.

“President Rohani and President Obama stressed the necessity for mutual cooperation on different regional issues,” he said.

Some observers, noting that President Obama himself announced the call in a live statement at the White House Friday and the Iranian president's office's tweets on the call, suggested there may have been more substantive information exchanged between the two sides this past week to warrant such unusual displays of enthusiasm from cautious leaders.

The Iranians “came here to do a deal, and whatever they said [Thursday in the Kerry Zarif meeting…] persuaded the White House that this was not just a charm offensive,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department policy planning official and an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution Saban Center, said Friday.

“They have a deal outlined,” she said. “Whatever they've communicated must be legitimate and compelling to have drawn out this risk-averse president.”

20130927-192103.jpgA Twitter account purporting to be linked to Rouhani's office also described the call–in tweets the White House said they saw and which they said accurately conveyed the tone of the call–though Iranian officials in New York said they do not confirm the account is legitimate.

“In phone convo, President #Rouhani and President @BarackObama expressed their mutual political #will to rapidly solve the #nuclear issue,” the @HassonRouhani account said, and which the White House twitter account (@WhiteHouse) retweeted.

In the call, according to a tweet on Rouhani's Twitter account that was later deleted, Obama expressed his “respect for [Rouhani] and the people of Iran. I'm convinced that relations between Iran and US will greatly affect region. If we can make progress on nuclear file, other issues such as Syria will certainly be positively affected.”

Obama signed off on the call, which was conducted through translators, with a Persian goodbye, after Rouhani wished him farewell in English, the White House said. (Rouhani's Twitter account, in a tweet that was later deleted, said Rouhani told Obama in English, 'Have a Nice Day!' and Obama responded with, 'Thank you. Khodahafez.')

On Tuesday, the Iranians declined a US offer to have an Obama Rouhani encounter or handshake in New York, when both leaders addressed the United Nations General Assembly.

Rouhani and Zarif have both described Obama and Kerry in positive terms this week, and expressed optimism about negotiations to ease tensions between the West and Iran, starting with the nuclear issue.

“The end goal is to ensure the interests of both sides, step by step to build confidence between the two nations,” Rouhani told journalists at a press conference Friday.

(Top photo: Historic phone call in the Oval Office: President Obama talks with Iran President Hassan Rouhani this afternoon. Pete Souza, White House. Second photo, from @HassanRouhani Twitter account: 'After historic phone conversation with @BarackObama, President #Rouhani in plane abt to depart for Tehran.')

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