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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iran diplomat offers tentatively positive take on Almaty talks


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iran FM says new nuclear talks Feb. 25

Iran’s Foreign Minister said Sunday that nuclear talks with six world powers will resume in Kazakhstan on February 25th. Western diplomats welcomed the remarks, but said they were still waiting for official confirmation from Iran’s nuclear negotiating team.

Ali Akbar Salehi, addressing the Munich Security Conference, said he’d heard the “good news” that agreement on the new P5+1 meeting date and location had been reached the day before.

A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said they hoped Salehi’s encouraging comments are soon officially confirmed by her formal counterpart on Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, Dr. Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

“Our latest proposal had indeed been Kazakhstan in the week of February 25 after other proposals had not worked,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said by email Sunday. “So it is good to hear that the Foreign Minister finally confirmed now. We hope the negotiating team will also confirm.”

“We aren’t fully there yet,” another western official cautioned Sunday, saying negotiators hope to lock in confirmation over the next day.

Iran’s foreign ministry does not take the lead in Iran nuclear negotiations, and Salehi has often presented a more conciliatory Iranian stance on the international stage.

Salehi also offered mild support for US Vice President Joe Biden’s comments asserting US willingness to hold direct talks with Iran, but was not committal about whether Iran would take up the offer.

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EU tries for February nuclear talks after Iranian stalling

Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's top adviser on international affairs, attends a news conference in DamascusNegotiators have proposed new dates in February for nuclear talks with Iran, after Iran did not accept repeated invitations to meet six world powers next week in Istanbul, European diplomats said Saturday. Meantime, a top aide to the Supreme Leader vowed Saturday that Iran won’t give up its right to peaceful nuclear energy, and said that the Leader remains adamantly opposed to direct talks between the United States and Iran.

“The nuclear issue is our strategic issue. The Islamic republic of Iran will never give up its right to peaceful nuclear energy,” Ali-Akbar Velayati, the former Iranian foreign minister and top foreign policy advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei, was cited in an interview with Mehr News on Saturday.

The United States should “definitely make a revision in its policies” towards Iran’s nuclear program, Velayati said. He also dismissed the likelihood of future American military action against Iran’s nuclear program, saying “today, the United States is weaker than the time when it attacked Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran is currently far stronger than Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The defiant comments from Khamenei’s longtime close aide and prospective Iranian presidential candidate come as Iran has been stalling international efforts to resume nuclear negotiations that have been on hiatus since last summer.

“As Iran did not accept the offer to go to Istanbul on January 28-29 we have offered new dates in February,” Michael Mann, spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said in an email Saturday.

“We are disappointed that we have so far not managed to agree on a meeting,” he continued. “We on our side showed flexibility when it came to date and venue, while Iran has been putting forward time and again new conditions, which amounted to delaying tactics.” Continue reading

Waiting games: Iran, world powers play chicken over talks impasse


As Iran continues to balk at scheduling new nuclear talks, six world powers are prepared to wait them out.

European diplomats said this week that Iran was giving them the run-around in scheduling a new round of talks.

In the latest salvo in the blame-game over the delay, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council claimed in a statement Friday that it is actually the P5+1 asking to push back the meeting. Deputy EU negotiator Helga Schmid called her Iranian counterpart Ali Bagheri Friday, to ask to delay the meeting ’til February “because the P5+1 isn’t ready,” Iran’s Fars News Agency reported Friday. “Bagheri…asked [the] P5+1 to be committed to the fixed dates in January,” the Iran NSC statement said, implying the six powers were the ones holding up resumed talks.

“Nonsense,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, fired back. “The reason for the hold-up is not the 3+3. We are ready and have been for a long time.”

“We had at least five calls to push for a January 28-29 meeting in Istanbul – they did not accept,” a western diplomatic source told the Back Channel Friday. “Now we offered new dates in February (as Jan. 28 now too late from a logistical point of view) and we hope that they will finally accept so we can leave these games behind and focus on substance.”

Tehran’s procrastination is meant to show that the Western sanctions are not working and they are in no big hurry to get back to talks, Iran expert Trita Parsi wrote at the Huffington Post Thursday. But it may also be driven by Iranian fears that they will be blamed if the meeting fails, over what Iran sees as a paltry offer, he said in an interview Friday.

But the P5+1 is not going to improve the package to reward the Iranians for not coming, diplomats and analysts told the Back Channel, even as Iran is intent on showing the sanctions are not so devastating that they are desperate for a deal.

“In terms of why [the Iranians are] not coming, their objective is to hold out as long as possible, and draw as significant concessions as possible preemptively,” former State Department Iran advisor Suzanne Maloney told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. “And I think they believe their leverage increases so long as they show they are not desperate for a deal.”

The Iranian calculation that delay favors their negotiating leverage is likely mistaken, Maloney said.

For the United States and P5 partners, “you sit and wait them out,” Maloney, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said.

“I don’t think we improve the prospects for a deal by signaling” we’re prepared to sweeten the deal, she added. “They don’t put a lot of credibility in any signals we send, anyhow.”

While Iranian sources have suggested they are trying to press the P5+1 to put discussion of sanctions relief on the agenda for a new meeting, western diplomats say it’s simply “not true at all” that the group has resisted discussing sanctions relief, a  European diplomat told the Back Channel Friday.

Former Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross said he expected Iran would likely show up for talks in February or so.

“They have no prospects of getting an improved deal if they don’t come,” Ross, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. And “they run the risk…that pressure will go up.”

The Iranians “want to show they are in no hurry,  that [the pressure] is not working,” Ross suggested. The Iranian calculus is that the longer the talks impasse drags on, and their program advances, “the pressure builds on us,” Ross said. “They believe we don’t really want to use force. …They are playing a very risky game.”

Iranian delay may also be the result of Iranian interest in seeing if Obama’s new national security team modifies US policy towards Iran, Ross said. Incoming Secretary of State John Kerry “in the past has signaled an interest in talking to them,” Ross said Iranian leaders may be thinking. “’Let the new team get on board.’ The truth is–and the Iranians will discover this as well–this is the same president and he is the one who makes the decisions.”

“I will give diplomacy every opportunity to succeed,” Kerry said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday. “But no one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat. …The president has made it definitive — we will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

“The Iranians need to understand that there is no other agenda here,” Kerry continued. “If their program is peaceful, they can prove it. That is what we are seeking.”

Maloney agreed Washington doesn’t need to go overboard to correct any Iranian misreading of Obama’s new national security team as being averse to the use of force if diplomacy with Iran fails.

“Ultimately, everyone knows that there’s a real military option,” Maloney said. “Sanctions are bleeding the country dry. … We don’t need to grandstand. We have far more leverage than the Iranians do.”

If and when negotiations resume, however, the United States will have to take a strategic decision “at what point are we prepared to pay to play,” Maloney said. “To put significant sanctions relaxation, even temporary relaxation, on the table.”

(Photo: U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) testifies during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to be secretary of state, on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.)

‘Intense and tough’ Iran nuclear talks in Moscow reveal wide gaps

Moscow_ Iran for the first time on Monday gave a point-by-point response to an international proposal on halting its 20% enrichment activities. But international diplomats said the presentation, replete with PowerPoint slides, at a meeting in Moscow Monday, if anything only made more daunting the diplomatic challenge of trying to narrow the yawning gaps between the two sides in the near term.

“We had an intense and tough exchange of views today,” Michael Mann, spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief and lead international negotiator Catherine Ashton, told journalists at the conclusion of the first day of international Iran nuclear negotiations in Moscow Monday.

The Iranians “responded to our package of proposals from Baghdad but, in doing so, brought up lots of questions and well-known positions, including past grievances,” Mann said. “We agreed to reflect overnight on each others’ positions.”

“It’s not enough, it’s not close to enough,” a diplomat at the talks said later, on condition of anonymity, saying the lengthy Iranian presentations Monday did not strike him as signaling Iranian seriousness about negotiations on confidence-building steps.

Then again, the Russians would not want the Iran diplomatic process to “break down” on their turf, he surmised. Some stray hopes for progress rested on the fact that lead Iran negotiator Dr. Saeed Jalili had a dinner meeting Monday night with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s national security council and former FSB chief, although no results from it were yet known Monday night. “We’ll see what happens tomorrow,” the official said.

The lead Russian negotiator at the talks acknowledged wide gaps in the two sides’ thoughts on how to structure and sequence a work plan for easing international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and accumulating stockpile of 20% enriched uranium.

“The difficulty here is not only quite a distance between the positions but also the sequencing … what comes first, what comes next, what this reciprocity means,”  Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told journalists upon leaving the meetings–at a hotel near Moscow’s Foreign Ministry and famed Arbat pedestrian boulevard. “The logic of the negotiations is extremely complicated.”

Diplomatic observers cautioned that these high-stakes multiparty talks tend to have an ebb and flow, and things that looked irrevocably stuck at one point sometimes got unstuck a few hours later. Sometimes.

“Give this some time,” a European diplomat said late Monday. “We can’t judge the talks every five minutes.”

Mann’s statement that the parties had agreed to “reflect overnight” seemed to imply code for the Iranian negotiators having an opportunity to make calls back to Tehran for further consultations and instructions. (The point when it becomes evident that things can’t move further until Iran calls back home comes in every such meeting, diplomats have said.) There were likely some calls back to Washington and European capitals Monday evening as well. Continue reading

Iran nuclear talks get underway in Baghdad

Baghdad__Iran nuclear talks have gotten underway in Baghdad.

“Good body language, a good routine has set in,” one official told Al Monitor about 90 minutes after diplomats from six nations and Iran went into a plenary meeting.

The top international negotiator, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, is presenting a detailed proposal on behalf of the P5+1 group. The proposal is focused on a confidence building measure that aims to curb Iran’s higher level 20% uranium enrichment, diplomats said.

The proposal includes “confidence building measures that can begin to pave the way for Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and for it to comply with UNSC resolutions,” a western official said.

“This approach includes concrete, step-by-step, reciprocal measures aimed at near term action,” he said. “We are looking to have detailed and serious discussions in Baghdad that strive to make progress towards these concrete steps.”

Iran seemed unlikely to either accept or reject the proposal outright at this meeting.

Western diplomats have indicated that if the Iranians show a constructive response to the proposal, they would like to propose that the parties meet more frequently in a single location, in order to advance a possible accord. Diplomats have suggested that such meetings could occur every few weeks–not always with all the rigamarole of the last few rounds of high-stakes talks in Istanbul and Baghdad. For instance, a regular meeting spot in Geneva could sometimes bring together technical experts, middle level diplomats, for a process that could take months and is envisioned to be implemented over several steps, they suggested.

It was as yet unclear Wednesday if the talks would continue for a second day.

“What happened in Istanbul was positive,” Michael Mann, spokesman for Ashton, told journalists shortly after the plenary talks had begun Wednesday.

“I can’t express optimism [about this meeting in Baghdad] til we hear the response from the Iranians to our proposal.”

“Key now for a detailed dialogue and tangible results,” the first official said.

Diplomats have said they will make public their proposal in the next day or two.

Al Monitor reported Tuesday on some of the elements of the proposal. Continue reading