US, Iran hold ‘intensive, useful’ talks as negotiations intensify

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Washington, D.C.__ U.S. and Iranian nuclear negotiators have held two days of “intensive.. useful” talks, but gaps still remain, Iranian officials said Tuesday.

The talks, lasting 12 hours over two days in Geneva, were “intensive…but useful,” and “held in a good atmosphere,” an Iranian diplomat told Al-Monitor after talks ended Tuesday. “Gaps are still there. Consultations will continue.”

The US-Iran meetings “were business-like, and we covered all the issues that we have been discussing so far in Vienna,” a second Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “The exchange helped us better understand each others’ positions.”

“After these meetings in Geneva and bilateral meetings with the French, Russians and the Germans in the next few days, we hope we will be better prepared to start the talks next week in Vienna,” the second Iranian official said.

Iranian negotiators are due to hold a bilateral meeting with French counterparts in Geneva on Wednesday, and with Russia in Rome on Thursday and Friday. Iran will hold a bilateral meeting with Germany’s political director in Tehran Sunday, ahead of the next round of final deal talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna June 16-20.

The US delegation to Geneva, led by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, has not yet publicly commented on the bilateral consultations with Iran, which were held at an undisclosed location. (Journalists in Geneva said they believed the talks were being held at Geneva’s President Wilson hotel, where the US delegation was thought to be staying, but the hotel would not confirm that.)

State Department and European Union spokespeople stressed that the series of bilateral meetings underway this week were all in support of the comprehensive deal negotiations being carried out by the P5+1 under the coordination of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The talks are now intensifying, they said, as the parties aim to see if they can reach a final accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires, or will need to be extended for up to another six months.

“The E3/EU+3’s diplomatic efforts to reach a comprehensive solution are now intensifying,” Michael Mann, Ashton’s spokesman, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “They have always taken place at different levels and in different formats and included bilateral meetings in support of the central E3/EU+3 nuclear negotiations led by [High Representative] Ashton.”

“We’ve always said that we would engage the Iranians bilaterally if it can help advance our efforts, of course acting in total coordination with the P5+1 and the EU,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told journalists at the State Department press briefing Monday.

“We also said that there was going to be an intensification of diplomatic efforts, particularly getting closer to July 20th,” Harf said “If we’re going to seriously test whether we can reach a diplomatic solution here, we need to engage in as much active diplomacy as possible.”

Meantime, France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday that it would be hard to close wide gaps over the size of Iran enrichment capacity in a final deal by next month.

“We are still hitting a wall on one absolutely fundamental point which is the number of centrifuges which allow enrichment,” Fabius told France Inter radio Tuesday, Reuters reported. “We say that there can be a few hundred centrifuges, but the Iranians want thousands so we’re not in the same framework.”

The timing of Fabius’ public comments, as the US held the first lengthy, one on one talks with Iran since last year, raised some eyebrows in Washington.

Asked about them, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Tuesday the focus should remain on the “behind the scenes” talks, not “public demands.”

“Subconsciously, [Fabius] hates when [the] US-Iran meet bilaterally for the usual French reasons,” Jeremy Shapiro, a Brookings fellow in foreign policy studies, told Al-Monitor. “More consciously, he doesn’t trust the US as negotiators and believes he plays an important role in shoring them up and ensuring that they don’t give away the store.”

France’s new political director Nicolas de Riviere will take part in bilateral discussions with Iranian negotiators in Geneva on Wednesday, Araghchi told Iran’s IRNA news agency.

(Photo of Iran’s delegation, including Deputy Foreign Ministers Abbas Araghchi and Majid Ravanchi ,and the head of its expert team Hamid Baeedinejad, heading to the Geneva talks on June 9, 2014, from Iran MFA website.)

Iran's Rouhani urges West to 'seize' moment for diplomacy

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On the eve of his trip to New York, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani continued his charm offensive, publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post Friday urging world leaders to “seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election” and his “mandate” for “prudent engagement.”

“To move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country’s nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher,” Rouhani wrote in the Post. “Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better.”

Rouhani’s push for dialogue on both regional and nuclear issues came as the White House continued to assert U.S. willingness for direct talks.

“We have heard a lot in the world from President Rouhani’s administration about its desire to improve the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s relations with the international community,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at the White House press briefing Thursday. “And President Obama believes we should test that assertion, and we are and we will do that.”

In his letter to Rouhani, “the President indicated that the U.S. is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes,” Carney said. “The letter also conveyed the need to act with a sense of urgency.”

Ahead of Rouhani's arrival in New York, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was scheduled to meet with Iranian scholars and think tank experts in New York Friday. Zarif is due to hold talks with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Monday, and with the British and Russian foreign ministers later in the week.

Rouhani will likely meet with French President Francois Hollande in New York on Tuesday, a French official told Al-Monitor Friday.

The White House has signaled Obama’s openness to meet with Rouhani, but has previously said there are no current plans for a meeting.

The media has gone into a frenzy about the possibility of an Obama-Rouhani handshake in New York. Both leaders are due to address the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday September 24th, Obama as the second speaker in the morning, and Rouhani, the seventh, in the afternoon.

“People here [in Washington] will want to see something very real from Tehran,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, told Al-Monitor Friday. “And of course the US has to reciprocate. But from the dominant US perspective, the onus is on Iran.”

Amir Mohebbian, a political commentator in Iran, told the New York Times in an interview that Iran is seeking short-term relief from sanctions imposed on its ability to transfer money. “We particularly want to be readmitted to the Swift system,” Mohebbian told the Times. What Iran would be willing to trade for such a concession is not yet clear, but scholars in the orbit of Zarif and Rouhani have suggested they would be amenable in an end-state deal to more aggressive IAEA monitoring and safeguards, capping enrichment at 5%, and limiting the number of Iran's centrifuges and enrichment sites.

“All the optics from Tehran — even from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — indicate that Iran is gearing up for a new attempt at a nuclear deal,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote at Foreign Policy Thursday. “If a deal can't be made in the next few months, it's hard to see another opportunity when the chances would ever be this good again.”

The new Iranian “administration has opened a door to a better relationship, and one better for the United States, about as widely as such doors ever are opened,” Paul Pillar, former senior US intelligence analyst, wrote at the National Interest. “The United States would be foolish not to walk through it.”

(Photo: Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Getty.)zp8497586rq