U.S. negotiator to brief Congress on Iran talks

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Lead U.S. Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is expected to brief Congressional leaders and relevant committee chiefs in classified session this week on the talks between six world powers and Iran held in Geneva last week.

In a brief conversation last week that did not delve into the details of the Iranian proposal, Sherman told House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel “that the Iranians appeared serious,” but cautioned that the “devil’s in the details and made clear that the US negotiators will remain clear eyed as they seek to negotiate a deal to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” Engel said in a statement.

“Ranking Member Engel was pleased that the P5+1 reportedly had a productive first round of negotiations with the Iranians in Geneva,” spokesman Daniel Harsha told Al-Monitor Monday.  “But a change in tone is hardly sufficient. He believes pressure brought Iran to the table, and that pressure must be maintained until Iran has verifiably dismantled its nuclear weapons program.“

“The Iranians are masters at negotiation for the sake of buying time,” Harsha said.  “Given that, Ranking Member Engel would only be open to freezing further legislative action on the new sanctions bill if Iran quickly takes a number of concrete and fully verifiable steps to freeze enrichment and other elements of its nuclear weapons program. And he won’t even consider easing sanctions already on the books until Iran verifiably dismantles their program, leaving absolutely no possibility of a rapid ‘breakout.’”

Diplomats from the six world powers and Iran have agreed not to publicize the details of the Iranian proposal presented in two days of talks in Geneva last week (Oct. 15-16).

The new Iranian proposal “appears to have addressed some of our concerns, while leaving others unaddressed,” a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday. “That is what the upcoming talks will further flesh out. …[The process] has begun and now we need to see what the coming weeks will bring.”

Iran's deputy nuclear negotiators for the first time met with their US counterparts one on one for an hour in Geneva, and conducted the negotiations with their P5+1 counterparts in English, facilitating the pace and candor of the negotiations, western diplomats said.

But western diplomats were cautious in characterizing their reaction to the undisclosed Iranian proposal, describing a deal as still likely some ways off.

“We learned more about their program and their concerns,” a senior western diplomat told journalists in Brussels last week, Reuters reported. “However, it doesn't mean we are close to a solution and that we will have an agreement next month.”

We “got more today than we have ever gotten before, but there’s still a whole lot more we have to get,” a senior US administration official told journalists in Geneva last week, calling the process a “beginning.”

Regarding the seemingly lukewarm reaction, the US official said Monday to keep in mind that it’s not in the P5+1’s interest to sound overly enthusiastic about what the Iranians put on the table, “either from a negotiating perspective….or our own domestic politics.”

The administration would be “concerned about not looking gullible to Congress,” agreed Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official now with the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, in an interview Monday. Continue reading

Setback at Iran nuclear talks

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Almaty, Kazakhstan__Western diplomats on Friday expressed initial dismay after listening to Iranian negotiators present their response to a revised international nuclear proposal. But after further meetings Friday, western negotiators said the talks had become more substantive, though the sides remained some ways apart.

“We are somewhat puzzled by the Iranians’ characterisation of what they presented,” a western official told journalists after a three hour meeting here between diplomats from Iran and six world powers.

Rather than the “clear and concrete” response the six powers had been seeking, the Iranian nuclear negotiating team offered “some interesting, but not fully explained, general comments on our ideas,” the western official continued.

“It was mainly a reworking of what they said in Moscow,” the official said, referring to a powerpoint on Iran’s proposed framework for negotiations that Tehran envoys presented in Moscow last June.

Earlier Friday, Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri, in a mid-day press conference, said Iran had presented a “comprehensive proposal” to international negotiators that stressed the process and endgame, beyond short-term confidence-building steps.

The Islamic Republic of Iran “proposed a practical method to implement a Moscow plan in a smaller scale, and stressed that actions and so-called confidence building measures must be considered as part of a larger, more comprehensive plan,” Bagheri, speaking through a translator, said at a second press conference Friday evening.

But western diplomats expressed initial puzzlement at what they perceived as Iran’s apparant return to debating modalities for negotiations, rather than haggling over specific steps discussed at two recent rounds of talks this year.

“We had a long and substantial discussion on the issues, but we remain a long way apart on the substance,” a western official said at the conclusion of the first day of talks Friday. “We are now evaluating the situation and will meet again tomorrow.”

Diplomats from Iran, the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the EU are expected to meet again here on Saturday. Iran also held a series of bilateral meetings Friday evening, including with the Russians, Germany, and UK. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is expected to meet with Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili Saturday morning before plenary talks get underway.

Another meeting ‘to narrow gaps’ will possibly be agreed before delegations depart, one official suggested, although it was not yet clear at what level it would be held.

Western diplomats notably sent out the SOS about how things were going downhill early in the first day of the expected two-day talks in an apparent bid to try to salvage seeming progress made in two recent rounds of talks. Iran seeks, before it would agree to suspend its 20% enrichment, to get assurances on a path that will result in recognition of its right to enrich and broader sanctions relief. Western diplomats say Iran should take the first step in a confidence building measure.

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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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Diplomats press Iran to stop stalling on nuclear talks

After weeks of Iranian foot-dragging, western negotiators are pressing Iran to commit to a firm date for resumed nuclear talks.

“We have been very surprised to see Iran come back to us again and again with new pre-conditions on the modalities of the talks, for example by changing the venue and delaying their responses,” a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton responded to a question from the Back Channel Wednesday.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was cited in media reports Wednesday proposing Cairo host the next round of talks with the P5+1.

But western diplomats say such reports are “total spin,” and that in fact, Iran has not yet agreed to a new meeting, in Cairo or anywhere else.

“Several venues have been proposed. We do not exclude any, but Iran is proposing different venues all the time,” a European official said. “Iran appears to be trying to delay the process by coming up with new conditions.”

Russia on Wednesday pointedly pressed Iran to stop giving nuclear negotiators the run-around.

“We think that our Iranian colleagues could be doing this a little faster,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow Wednesday, the AFP reported. Continue reading

Iran nuclear advisor sets out ‘maximalist’ stance as Iran mulls new talks

Iran's IAEA ambassador Soltanieh and Iran's IAEA advisor Asgari attend a meeting on the Iranian nuclear issue in ViennaAmid a continued stalemate in efforts to resume nuclear talks, a key advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team has published a proposal he says has been previously presented to the United States and five world powers for resolving international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

The author, Mahdi (or Mehdi) Mohammadi, the former political editor of Iran’s hardline Kayhan newspaper, is one of two key architects of Iran’s nuclear negotiating strategy under the team led by Iran National Security Advisor Saeed Jalili, an Iranian source who requested anonymity said.

The other is Hamid-Reza Asgari, the low-profile legal advisor to Iran’s Atomic Energy organization and senior non-proliferation advisor to Iran’s National Security Council. Asgari led Iran’s team to technical talks with arms control officials from the United States and other P5+1 powers in Istanbul July 3rd.. Asgari previously met with American, as well as Russian and French diplomats, in Vienna on October 21, 2009 to discuss the details of a nuclear fuel swap deal that later fell apart amid domestic infighting in Iran.

Asgari “is the real boss,” the Iranian source told the Back Channel.

“The two sides, according to Tehran, should first address each other’s concerns,”  Mohammadi wrote in Iran Review January 9th:

The United States should, thus, recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium and Iran, in return, will announce that it has no plan to build nuclear weapons. In the next stage, the US and the European Union should remove all unilateral sanctions against Iran and Iran, for its part, will take immediate steps to address the remaining concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which the Western countries claim to be very important. In fact, a new round of IAEA’s inspections of and access to Iran’s nuclear sites will begin. In the third stage, Iran will be ready to negotiate about 20-percent enrichment provided that the United Nations Security Council will annul all its sanctions resolutions against Tehran. [...]

The proposal, which would not have Iran negotiate curbing its higher 20% uranium enrichment activities until the third step, after the lifting of US and European sanctions, might be viewed as a disheartening sign that Iran may still not be prepared to seriously negotiate. At the same time, it could be read as an Iranian effort not to appear over-eager for a deal, ahead of anticipated negotiations Tehran does hope will lead to sanctions relief.

“It’s all part of the pre-negotiation negotiation,” analyst Mark Fitzpatrick suggested.

“Iran is still in the opening salvo stages of negotiations, presenting its maximalist demands,” Fitzpatrick, a nuclear expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told the Back Channel Tuesday. “And clearly these so-called reciprocal concessions are not in the ballpark for what the six powers can accept. Because Iran is not really giving up anything other than 20%. No mention of Fordo, of its stockpile [of enriched uranium] and no limits on its 5% production.”

“Considering that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad repeatedly said Iran could stop 20% in exchange for fuel for [the Tehran Research Reactor] TRR, now Iran is demanding everything for stopping 20%,” Fitzpatrick continued. “That is not a reasonable position for the P5. And they [the Iranians] need to get in the room and talk seriously.”

The publication of Tehran’s proposal comes as western negotiators have been waiting with growing discouragement for Iran to respond to numerous attempts to schedule a new round of talks with six world powers.

“We have spoken to them a number of times since before the new year and have offered dates and venue, but they still don’t come back with a straight answer,” Michael Mann, a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told the Back Channel Monday. Continue reading

Israel, Iran attend arms talks in Brussels

Both Israel and Iran took part in a European nonproliferation conference in Brussels this week. The meeting, first reported by the Guardian, was held to advance uncertain prospects for a conference on transforming the Middle East into a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, which Finland is due to host later this year.

But many eyes were on the dynamic between the two arch enemy nations. The diplomatic encounter comes as world powers expect to hold a new round of P5+1 talks with Iran later this month, and amid a recent uptick in rumored contacts exploring the possibility of direct US-Iran talks to advance a nuclear deal.

Israeli and European diplomats, for their part, downplayed that the Brussels meeting was anything much out of the ordinary, noting it’s an annual seminar, and that Israeli and Iranian officials had no direct contact at the meeting. “We’re talking here about an EU Seminar that takes place every year with more that 100 people attending,” one European diplomat told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “This was not an Israeli-Iranian meeting, nor were either positive.”

“Sorry to disappoint, but there was absolutely no contact between me and Soltanieh there,” Jeremy Issacharoff, the Israeli diplomat who led the Israeli delegation to the Brussels meeting, told Al-Monitor by email Tuesday, referring to Iran’s envoy to the IAEA Ali Ashgar Soltanieh. “Over recent years, I have been in many seminars and track 2 meetings like this, and believe me, any exchanges are mostly pretty hostile.”

The Israeli delegation, in addition to Issacharoff, Israel’s deputy director general of strategic affairs, included Ariel “Eli” Levite, the former deputy head of Israel’s atomic energy commission, a source at the talks said.

Iran’s delegation, in addition to Soltanieh, included Hamid Aref, the deputy head of Iran’s mission to Belgium and the European Union, and Babee, another diplomat from the Iranian mission in Brussels.

Soltanieh announced Tuesday that Iran plans to attend the Helsinki WMD free zone conference. Israel to date has signaled it is unlikely to attend, but European diplomats continue to try to persuade it to participate. (Soltanieh’s announcement, made in the meeting’s closing session, “scored a PR coup,” the European diplomat said. It was a “smart tactical move by the Iranians, now putting the pressure on the conveners and Israel.”)

Participants in the two-day Brussels seminar offered a mixed take on the atmospherics. “In all the sessions I attended, the tone was respectful and largely positive,” Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran nuclear expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told Al-Monitor, adding, however, that “in one breakout session I didn’t attend, some crockery reportedly came close to being broken, but so far, so good.”

While there was “little..concrete outcome from this seminar, … the fact that Iranian and Israeli attendance was quite good is telling,” Dina Esfandiary, also of IISS, said.

Such diplomatic encounters are not quite as rare as advertised–as Issachaoff’s comments indicate–although there is no sign they signal any shift in the two nations’ mutual hostility.

Current and former Israeli and Iranian officials have in fact taken part in various meetings and unofficial dialogues across Europe over the years, including at least two previous meetings this year, Al-Monitor has learned.

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Diplomats confer ahead of Ashton-Jalili call

Diplomats from the 5+1 conferred Tuesday ahead of an expected conversation next week between the top international and Iran negotiators, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

Political directors from the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China held a conference call Tuesday with European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, to determine exactly what she should say when she speaks with Iran’s Saeed Jalili. An exact date for the Ashton-Jalili call has not been finalized. US negotiator Wendy Sherman, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, is in Washington this week, the State Department said, after traveling earlier this month to China, Russia and London for consultations with her P5+1 counterparts on Iran and Syria.

Iran’s hosting of the non-aligned movement summit in Tehran this week has consumed its diplomatic attention for the moment and pushed back the Ashton-Jalili conversation a few days. The extra time is just as well given the P5+1 Iran diplomacy having to contend with the potential wrench thrown into the negotiating calendar presented by recent Israeli saber-rattling on Iran. House Intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said Tuesday he thinks any Israel strike on Iran will come after the US presidential election, November 6.  Israeli official sources have offered the same suggestion to Al-Monitor in interviews this month. Israeli officials indicated that a decision has not yet been taken. Continue reading