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.)

France gets new Iran negotiator


When six world powers and Iran next hold nuclear talks in Vienna June 16th, France will have a new top negotiator.

France’s longtime lead negotiator, political director Jacques Audibert, was tapped in May to head the French Presidential (Elysee) diplomatic office on G-7/G-8 and multilateral issues.

France’s new political director and top negotiator at the P5+1 talks with Iran will be Nicolas de Rivière, who most recently served as France’s assistant secretary of UN affairs. De Riviere previously served as France’s deputy permanent representative at the UN in NY, among other diplomatic assignments.

The switch in France’s Iran team is not the only personnel change on the horizon, as negotiators seek to reach a final Iran nuclear accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is due to step down in October. US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who led a US diplomatic “back channel” to Iran last year, has also announced he will retire in October.

Technical experts from the P5+1 and Iran began meeting in Vienna Wednesday for two days of expert level talks (June 5-6).

Meantime, lead US Iran nuclear negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is in Brussels Wednesday as part of President Obama’s delegation to the G-7 Leaders’ Summit, the State Department said.

US officials say they are working to try to reach a final deal by July 20th. “We are working towards the July 20th date, and we believe we can meet that date,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told Al-Monitor Monday.

But one western diplomat from a member of the six negotiating powers told Al-Monitor Wednesday that he thinks an extension is probably likely to be needed.

“The end of July comes very, very soon,” the western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “We definitely prefer to have a strong, clear, sustainable long-term agreement, even if we need a few months more, than what would be considered as an insufficiently good…agreement in the next six weeks.”

The western diplomat described the final deal talks to date as “serious” and delving deeply into the details. But the last round of talks in Vienna in May, while “serious,” were “also difficult,” he said. “We still have wide differences on some of the fundamentals of the talks, including mainly Arak and uranium enrichment capacity.”

The Iranians “have to make a clear political choice, which is really a kind of prerequisite for a long-term and sustainable agreement,” the diplomat said.

(Top photo: Russia’s Sergey Ryabkov, France’s Jacques Audibert, USA’s William Burns, China’s Wu Hailong, Britain’s Robert Cooper and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton meet in Geneva, in December 2010. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AFP/Getty. Second photo: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Nicolas de Rivière, UN director at the French foreign ministry. Photo by French UN office.)

U.S. releases funds to Iran as IAEA verifies compliance with nuclear deal


The United States said Thursday that it has released the latest tranche of $450 million to Iran based on verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency this week that Iran is complying with the terms of a six month interim nuclear deal.

The announcement came as US officials said that the US has taken steps to resolve problems Iran was alleged to have had accessing some funds.

“We can confirm that we have taken the necessary steps in all good faith pursuant to the Joint Plan of Action to facilitate the release of certain Iranian funds in the installments agreed,” a Treasury Department spokesperson, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported to its Board of Governors this week that Iran has diluted 75% of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium since the six month Joint Plan of Action went into effect on January 20th, Reuters reported Thursday.

“Based on this confirmation and consistent with commitments that the United States made under the Joint Plan of Action, the Department of Treasury took the necessary steps… to facilitate the release of a $450 million installment of Iran’s frozen funds,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told journalists at the State Department press briefing Thursday.

“As Iran remains in line with its commitments under the JPOA, the the US … will continue to uphold our commitments as well,” Harf said.

Iranian officials, under fire from hardliners suspicious of the nuclear negotiations, echoed the assessment that the six world powers were delivering the sanctions relief promised in the deal.

Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister and nuclear negotiator, told Iran’s IRNA news agency Tuesday that to date, four installments of Iran’s frozen oil sale proceeds have been released to Iran per the deal’s terms, and that the “Central Bank of Iran has no problem in having access” to the funds, IRNA reported  Wednesday.

A fifth installment was expected to be released on Wednesday, IRNA cited Ravanchi.

Under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action, Iran is to receive a total of $4.2 billion in its oil sale proceeds held in foreign bank accounts, delivered in eight installments over six months, based on IAEA verification of its compliance.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif likewise defended the nuclear negotiations this week and said he believed both sides wanted to get a final deal and were negotiating in good faith.

“There is the political will to get an answer,” Zarif told Reuters in Abu Dhabi April 15th.  “The domestic audience will be satisfied if we have a good deal. Of course some people will never be satisfied but that is fine because we have a pluralistic society.”

Negotiators from Iran and six world powers have held three rounds of talks in Vienna this year and are set to begin drafting the text of a final nuclear accord at their next meeting in May, with the aim of trying to conclude an agreement by the July 20th expiration of the interim deal.

Ahead of the fourth round of talks, to be held in Vienna starting on May 13th, experts from Iran and the P5+1 will hold expert-level talks on the sidelines of a NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in New York the first week of May, Zarif said this week.

U.S. would find Iran UN candidate ‘extremely troubling’

The State Department said Wednesday that it has notified Iran that it would have “serious concerns” about the choice of Hamid Aboutalebi to be Iran’s next UN envoy.

“We think this nomination would be extremely troubling,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told journalists at the State Department press briefing Wednesday, Reuters reported.

“We are taking a close look at the case now and we have raised our serious concerns about this possible nomination with the government of Iran,” Harf said.

Aboutalebi, a career Iranian diplomat close to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, told Iranian media in interviews last month that he had been summoned on occasion to serve as a translator during the 1979 US Iran hostage crisis, but had otherwise not been involved.

But Aboutalebi’s even remote, alleged association with the embassy seizure and hostage crisis that traumatized Americans and ruptured US Iranian diplomatic ties over three decades ago has set off a flurry of denunciations from some former US hostages and members of Congress, and some US Iran watchers say Iran should pick someone else for the important, New York-based ambassadorial post.

Iranian officials suggested this week that the nomination of Aboutalebi for the UN post was not yet official, and that it would only formally nominate someone for diplomatic posts who could receive the necessary approval from the hosting government.

“Iran’s policy is to formally appoint ambassadors – to all posts – once all the formalities are completed,” an Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday, in response to a query on Aboutalebi’s status.

Mr. Hamid Babaei, Iran’s spokesman at the UN mission in New York, repeated a variation of that line when contacted by Al-Monitor Wednesday to ask about the State Department’s comments on Aboutalebi. He said it was up to one’s own interpretation if that means Iran will nominate someone else if US approval is not forthcoming for Dr. Aboutalebi.

Aboutalebi visited the United States as a member of Iran’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in the mid-1990s, but was never previously full-time posted to the US, the Iranian official said. His alleged, peripheral connection to the 1979 crisis apparently did not come up when vetted for a visa for the short visit back then, former US officials surmised.

Aboutalebi, a former Iranian envoy to Italy, Belgium and Australia who currently works as an advisor in Rouhani’s presidential office, “is more reformist and more skeptical and critical of the [Iranian] system than” many others, one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“But to be frank, it doesn’t matter,” the Iranian analyst added. “Once [the controversy] hit the media, I think the Iranians should have withdrawn him much earlier.”

The State Department comments Wednesday “and the movements in the [Congress] yesterday seemed to finally press Iranians to leak that he was not officially nominated and hopefully end the whole saga,” an Iranian scholar told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

Iran’s UN envoy pick questioned over ties to hostage crisis

U.S. and Iranian officials were saying little Tuesday about a controversy that has erupted over Iran’s choice to be its next envoy to the United Nations, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs committee said the Obama administration should not grant the Iranian diplomat a visa.

Hamid Aboutalebi, 56, a career Iranian diplomat close to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, told Iranian media in interviews last month that he had been summoned on occasions during the 1979 US Iran hostage crisis to serve as a translator, but was otherwise not involved.

But Aboutalebi’s even remote alleged association with the embassy seizure and hostage crisis that traumatized Americans and ruptured US Iranian diplomatic ties over three decades ago has set off a flurry of denunciations from former US hostages, and some US Iran watchers say Iran should probably pick someone else.

Congress also got involved on Tuesday, further complicating the administration’s calculus. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East and North Africa, began drafting a letter requesting that the State Department deny Aboutalebi’s application, Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet has learned. The letter is expected to address other issues as well.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power may be asked about the issue when she testifies before the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

The irony, some Iran watchers say, is that Aboutalebi, a former Iranian ambassador in Australia, Brussels and Italy who currently serves as Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, is actually a reformist with strong ties to Rouhani who could have been an empowered envoy for advancing Iran’s international engagement at the all-important UN/New York post, much as Iran’s current Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did when he served at the UN over a decade ago.

Aboutalebi “is more reformist and more skeptical and critical of the [Iranian] system than” many others, one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “And for some reason, he is considered to be very strong within the system, and would have had greater room for maneuver to get his way.”

“But to be frank, it doesn’t matter,” the Iranian analyst added. “It’s already become such an issue…Once [the controversy] hit the media, I think the Iranians should have withdrawn him much earlier.”

While Aboutalebi does not hold expertise in UN and US affairs, “he reportedly enjoys a very close working relationship with President Rouhani,” Suzanne DiMaggio, the director of the Iran and Southwest Asia program at the New America Foundation, told Al-Monitor. “Given the role that the UN Ambassador plays as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington, having a representative in the U.S. who has direct access to Iran’s President could be viewed as trumping expertise.”

“On the visa matter, I’m not optimistic mainly because it is an allegation that is as difficult to disprove as it is to prove,” DiMaggio added.

The U.S. has apparently not decided what it will do on the matter, sources suggested.

Iranian officials were circumspect about whether they expected the appointment to proceed.

“Iran’s policy is to formally appoint ambassadors – to all posts – once all the formalities are completed,” an Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday, in response to a query on Aboutalebi’s status.

Aboutalebi visited the United States as a member of Iran’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in the mid-1990s, without incident, but was never previously full-time posted to the US, the Iranian official said.

Hamid Babaei, the spokesperson for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he had no comment.

Aboutalebi, who joined the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1981 and who earned his masters at the Sorbonne and PhD in France, told Iran’s Khabar News online last month that he was not in Tehran when the US embassy was seized in November 1979, but was summoned later to translate on some occasions, including when the Pope sent an envoy to Iran to try to mediate in the hostage crisis.

“On November 4 of [1979]… at the time of the occupation [of the US Embassy in Tehran], I was not in Tehran to be aware of this development or take part in it,” Aboutalebi told Khabar News online Mach 14. “When I heard of that incident, I was in [the southwestern Iranian city of] Ahvaz. Later on, when I came to Tehran, one day the late Martyr Dadman send a message to me… He told me they needed somebody to do French translation for them. I accepted and went from my home to the airport. Therefore, accompanied with the special representative of the Pope…who had already arrived in Tehran, I entered the [US] Embassy for the first time. On few other occasions, when they needed to translate something in relation with their contacts with other countries, I translated their material into English or French. For example, I did the translation during a press conference when the female and black staffers of the embassy were released and it was purely based on humanitarian motivations.”

“As far as I know, [Aboutalebi] is not associated or does not have a close relationship with the central figures in the hostage crisis,” an Iranian scholar, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “I think his nomination came from Rouhani himself. During Ahmadinejad’s time, he did not have any position [in the Iran foreign ministry]…but was at [Rouhani’s think tank, the Center for Strategic Research], and is close to Rouhani and was active in [his presidential] campaign.”

“I think that is one of the pluses, that he is close to Rouhani, [and serves as] political director of Rouhani’s presidential office,” the Iranian scholar said. Aboutalebi “is also very close to [former Iranian President] Khatami.” During Khatami’s administration, Aboutalebi served as a top advisor to then Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi.

Aboutalebi “was despised by Ahmadienjad,” the Iranian scholar said. “I am not sure he knows the US as much as [some of] the others [in Zarif’s team], but he is a good diplomat. In terms of his political leanings, he is a reformist.”

“I am surprised” Iran chose a UN envoy with even a remote link to the hostage crisis, “because if Obama accepts [him], he will be under pressure from opponents to rapprochement,” said Mohsen Milani, an Iran scholar at the University of South Florida. “But if he says no, [Rouhani] will be pressured by right-wingers in Iran.”

–Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.

(Photo of Iran’s then ambassador to Australia Hamid Aboutalebi in Australia in August 2006, by Fairfax media’s Simon Dallinger.)

Diplomats: Agenda, timetable agreed for Iran final deal talks

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Vienna__ Diplomats from Iran and six world powers said Wednesday they had agreed on an agenda of issues and a timetable of meetings to proceed in negotiating a comprehensive Iran nuclear accord.

The framework agenda includes the issues that will need to be addressed and a timetable for trying to reach an agreement in six months, one diplomat from the P5+1, speaking not for attribution, described here Wednesday.

“We have [a] timetable of meetings and identification of issues,” a Western official at the talks, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor late Wednesday..

A framework agreement has been reached, an Iranian negotiator affirmed to Al- Monitor late Wednesday evening just after talks broke for the night. The Islamic Republic News Agency, citing Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, reported late Wednesday that a framework agreement had been reached, and a next round of talks would be held in Vienna in mid to late March.

“This round of talks has been productive and useful,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf, in Vienna, told journalists on a State Department press conference call Wednesday. “We do think we have made some progress in the past two days.”

Talks, which began on Tuesday, are expected to wrap up on Thursday midday. In part, the cut off time seemed influenced by the fact that lead international negotiator, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, summoned EU foreign ministers to Brussels for an emergency meeting on the Ukraine crisis Thursday at 2pm.

Iranian officials have also said the talks are going well. But like their P5+1 counterparts, they have said little to the press since talks got underway here Tuesday.

“it’s not finished yet, but overall it’s positive,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Wednesday evening as he departed the negotiations venue. He said he didn’t know if there would be anything on paper, but thought there would be a framework completed by Thursday.

The negotiations over the structure, sequence and organization of the final deal talks require heavy lifting on the front end in part to keep everybody on board. Apparently, provisional details were not worked out in advance through bilateral channels in order to avoid any surprises, said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group. But the complications of the forthcoming negotiations are likely going to require bilateral consultations once the framework is agreed, he said.

The issues “are not black and white,” Vaez told Al- Monitor Wednesday. “The scale of the problem is such that figuring out mechanisms for tackling them, without any doubt, is going to be extremely complicated.”

“A confidential channel [as a way] to break deadlock on the nuclear talks is now needed to start gaining understanding on issues of common interest [and] in order to consolidate this process,” Vaez said. “Start somewhere, start where [you] have common interests.”

But Iran to date has not authorized Iranian officials to negotiate with American counterparts on issues beyond the nuclear file, Vaez said.

“I think it’s been clear from day one that [Iranian Supreme Leader Aytaollah] Khamenei does not want to put all his cards on the table,” Vaez said. “From his standpoint, if Iran puts all the issues on the table, it will be interpreted by the United States as Iran being in a position of weakness….The general policy of the Iran government is not to engage on these [other] issues, lest the US have the impression Iran is seeking a broader compromise.”

Iran, world powers may hold nuclear talks in New York

Iran and six world powers may hold the first round of negotiations to seek a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal in New York in mid-February, a U.S. official and Iranian media reports said Monday. However,an Iranian official said Monday that the parties are still working on both a place and the dates for the meeting.

“It is our understanding that the first round of comprehensive negotiations will be in New York in mid-February with dates still being confirmed on schedules,” Marie Harf, State Department deputy spokesperson, said by email Monday. 

“New York – agreed to by EU High Representative Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif – has a similar support infrastructure to Geneva,” Harf said.  “We believe that United Nations and international support is important for work on a comprehensive agreement.”

The last three rounds of high-level P5+1/Iran nuclear talks that secured a six-month interim nuclear deal on November 24th took place in Geneva.

But Syrian peace talks that got underway in Geneva last week may continue to be regularly convened for months at the UN headquarters in Geneva, diplomats earlier suggested.

It was understood that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s team suggested to P5+1 counterparts last fall that the nuclear negotiations take place in UN cities, such as Geneva, Vienna and New York.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was reported to have met with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif in Davos last week to confer on the upcoming negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear deal.

An EU spokesperson said Monday, however, that he did not yet have confirmation of the venue or dates for the next meeting. An Iranian official too, speaking not for attribution, said the venue and dates of the meeting are still being worked on.

Zarif, who previously served as Iran’s envoy to the UN in New York, met with Ashton and P5+1 foreign ministers on the sidelines of the opening of the UN General Assembly last September. US and Iranian diplomats also met quietly in New York in the run up to UNGA in  September, including to discuss arranging the September 26th one on one side-bar meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif, and the historic phone call between US President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Al-Monitor previously reported.

Kerry, foreign ministers to join talks to close Iran nuclear deal

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Geneva_ World powers and Iran seemed to be closing in on a deal as US Secretary of State John Kerry and other P5+1 foreign ministers said they would join talks in Geneva on Saturday.

“In light of the progress being made – and the progress that Lady Ashton and team are working very hard to achieve tonight – Secretary Kerry decided to travel to Geneva to join his ministerial colleagues tomorrow,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said Friday. “After talking to Lady Ashton and our negotiating team on the ground, he made the decision to travel here with the hope that an agreement will be reached.”

Kerry’s travel plans were announced after the arrival here Friday evening of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. UK, French and German foreign ministers also announced plans to come Saturday. China’s vice foreign minister has been here all week, and its foreign minister was reportedly also heading to Geneva.

Talks ran til almost 2am Saturday, on the third day of the third round of high level Iran nuclear talks here in Geneva in the past five weeks.

“So we’re close, but the end of a negotiation is always tough,” a US official told al-Monitor late Friday. “Because if it was easy, it would already be resolved.”

European Union foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton and her team have been running point between the Iranians and the P5+1 over the past couple days, to try to keep the process at this sensitive stage as coordinated as possible, with so many parties involved.

Kerry and European foreign ministers were expected to arrive here Saturday morning, when talks will resume.

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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Russia urges Syria to surrender chemical arms to avert strikes

In a potentially dramatic turn of events, Russia on Monday announced that it would immediately urge Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to international control as a way to avert U.S.–led military strikes.

“We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at an emergency press conference in Moscow Monday, following meetings with Syria’s visiting foreign minister Walid al-Moallem.

Lavrov said he had “already handed over the proposal to al-Moallem and expects a quick, and, hopefully, positive answer,’” the Associated Press reported.

“If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus,” Lavrov said.

Moallem, speaking from Moscow on Syrian State TV shortly later Monday, said Syria welcomed the Russian initiative. But it was not immediately clear from his reported comments whether “welcoming” the proposal constituted acceptance of it.

“The Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership's concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression,” Moallem was quoted as saying by ITV News.

The surprise turn in developments followed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry telling reporters in London Monday that Syria could avert strikes only if it agreed to turn over all of its chemical weapons by next week.

“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” Kerry said at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague Monday. “Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.”

“But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” Kerry added.

Kerry's remark–subsequently downplayed by State Department spokespeople as merely “rhetorical” and “hypothetical,” and characterized by another unnamed U.S. official to CNN as a “goof”–was followed by a telephone conversation between Kerry and Russia’s Lavrov Monday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

The Russian proposal emerged just as the White House is ramping up its public outreach as it presses Congress to vote to authorize the President to conduct limited military strikes to deter chemical weapons use in Syria.

President Obama is scheduled to give a half dozen television news interviews on Monday, and to give a prime time address to the nation Tuesday night at 9pm ET.

U.S. officials reacted to the news out of Moscow with skepticism Monday, suggesting it may be a stalling tactic, but promising to give the Russian proposal a “hard” look.

“Any effort to put Assad's chemical weapons under international control would be a positive step,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said at the department press briefing Monday. But we have “serious, deep skepticism.”

It's “even more important” that the United States doesn't take the pressure off Syria now, White House spokesman Jay Carney said at the White House press briefing Monday. The Russian initiative is  “explicitly in reaction to [the] threat of retaliation” by the United States.

Notably, amid the official expressions of skepticism, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the White House Monday after a meeting with President Obama, reiterated the conditions under which such a deal might be feasible.

“Now, if the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step,” Clinton said. “But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction. And Russia has to support the international community's efforts sincerely, or be held to account.”

Initial reaction from the Hill ranged from cautious to skeptical—but did not entirely shut off openness to see if the Russian proposal pans out.

“While at this point I have healthy skepticism that this offer will change the situation and it will be several days before we can fully determine its credibility, I do know that it never would have been floated if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had not approved the authorization for the use of force last week,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, said in a statement Monday.

“We shouldn’t get our hopes up too high,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said.

(Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomes his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem, left, prior to talks in Moscow on Monday, Sept. 9, 2013. Photo: Ivan Sekretarev, Associated Press.)

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