U.S. cautions Iran deal not imminent or certain

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Vienna__ A senior U.S. official took a tougher line on prospects for reaching a final deal as negotiators from Iran and six world powers arrived here to begin the first drafting round towards a comprehensive Iran nuclear accord.

“Everyone comes to the table wanting a diplomatic solution,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in Vienna Tuesday. “But having the intention does not mean it will happen.”

“Frankly, this is very, very difficult. Though we are drafting… it does not mean agreement is imminent,” the U.S. official cautioned. “There are a range of complicated issues to address. We do not know if Iran will accept” taking the steps necessary.

I am not optimistic or pessimistic, but realistic, the US official said, in answer to a question about what seemed a notably less upbeat forecast about prospects for reaching a compromise than in recent earlier rounds focused more on agenda-setting. She was also reacting to what she said was speculation in the media about provisional agreement reached on aspects of a final deal, such as a solution to the Arak reactor, and a growing sense of optimism in media reports that a deal would be reached.

“What we are working on is a package,” the US official stressed, calling the prospective final deal document the Comprehensive Plan of Action. “Not a checklist. Each individual piece affects the overall outcome. …The only percentage that matters is 100%.”

“One can see how one can get to an agreement by July 20,” but whether we can “get to it is another matter,” the US official said. “This is very tough…. There are points of agreement, there are significant gaps. It is not that there is no solution. There are. Getting to them is another matter.”

The US official’s less upbeat tone on prospects for reaching a final nuclear deal is both meant to manage expectations as the hard bargaining really begins, and because serious differences remain in the two sides’ positions, said Ali Vaez, senior Iran researcher at the International Crisis Group, and lead author of a major new report on solving the Iran nuclear issue, released last week.

“I have the impression that major sticking points remain,” Vaez told Al-Monitor in Vienna Tuesday. “There has been some progress, but still some contentious sticking points remain to be resolved and without them, there will be no agreement.”

Likening the closing weeks of the negotiations to a poker game, Vaez suggested that the negotiating atmosphere is likely “to get worse before it gets better.” It could “get to the point of almost breakdown before both sides reveal their real bottom line.”

This, the fourth round of final deal talks, kicked off Tuesday night with a dinner between Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and their top aides at the office of the Iran mission to the UN in Vienna. The full meeting begins Wednesday with a plenary meeting involving political directors from the P5+1 and Iran, chaired by Ashton and Zarif at the UN. It’s expected to continue at least through Friday.

Zarif, arriving in Vienna Tuesday, told Iranian media he expected at least three more rounds of political director talks before July 20, but those dates have not yet been announced.

The parties are “quite focused on the July 20 date” when the six month interim deal, known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), expires, the US diplomat said. “We expect to negotiate every moment ’til then.”

(Photo: Reuters.)

Former US officials detect shift in Israel on Iran nuclear deal

Israel increasingly expects that a nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers will be reached, and has raised concerns with U.S. interlocutors about monitoring and enforcement of the deal, former American officials and Iran policy experts involved in recent discussions with the Israelis tell Al-Monitor.

While Israel’s official position remains that the only acceptable Iran nuclear deal would be “zero, zero, zero,” – meaning no centrifuges, domestic uranium enrichment or plutonium, or the facilities to produce them—former American officials and experts involved in recent consultations with the Israelis detect that Israel’s position on the matter has shifted as the prospect of a deal being reached has increased. Israeli officials are now focusing on concerns of what happens if a deal is reached, how can monitoring and verification be sufficient to detect if there is a violation, and how would such violations of an agreement be deterred or punished, at a time when Israel assesses U.S. credibility as weakened on the world stage, including because of events in Ukraine and Syria.

Most Israeli officials and experts “seem to understand that ‘zero, zero, zero’ is not going to happen,” a member of a US group of experts and former senior officials recently in Israel for consultations, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor in an interview this week. They seem “to understand that there is a need for a domestic, indigenous civil nuclear program….for the Iranians to” deal with their domestic opposition.

“Israel is very concerned about the current discussions with Iran because all signs point to the P5+1 accepting a deal that will leave Iran’s nuclear weapons capability intact,” Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer told an Anti Defamation League conference this week.

“Our policy is simple,” Dermer said. “Let Iran have only a peaceful nuclear program and nothing more.”

“On substantive issues, there is probably room for maneuver,” a senior former US diplomat involved in the April consultations in Israel told Al-Monitor on condition he not be named, referring to Israel’s requirements for an Iran nuclear deal.

“But two issues are going to be very hard to persuade the Israelis on,” the former American diplomat continued. “Monitoring: There is very little belief anywhere in Israel that [a comprehensive nuclear] accord can be monitored… that ensures there is not going to be clandestine activity, and the Iranians [could] not break out” at some phase.

“That is a serious concern,” the former US diplomat said. “I don’t want to minimize it, because monitoring is going to be a huge problem. How long did we not know about [aspects] of [Iran’s] clandestine program,” such as Iran’s underground enrichment facility at Fordo, which Iran did not declare to the IAEA until days before the U.S., UK and France publicly exposed it in 2009.

The Israelis are also deeply concerned, the former US diplomat said, that if there is a violation by Iran of a final nuclear accord, that the violation will be seen by Washington as too ambiguous or incremental, that there “is no smoking gun.”

The Israelis are “nervous that the U.S. will continuously say, ‘we are checking into it, we need more proof,’” the former diplomat described. “At what point does the cumulative effect of the small things add up to a violation?”

In addition, the Israelis are concerned that the United States does not have a sufficiently credible military threat to deter a future Iranian violation of a comprehensive agreement, the Iran policy expert said. “That is problematic from an Israeli perspective.”

The Iran policy expert said it was her group’s assessment that while the Iran nuclear negotiations are ongoing, there won’t be a unilateral strike by Israel. “While they are ongoing,” she repeated.

There continues to be a lot of “frustration” from the Israeli side that they will be “profoundly impacted” by a nuclear deal, even though they are not in the room for the P5+1 talks with Iran, nor do they feel the U.S. was forthcoming with them about secret US-Iran bilateral contacts leading up to the interim nuclear deal last fall.

Israeli officials felt deeply betrayed that their US counterparts were not more forthcoming with them last year about the extent of secret US-Iranian bilateral contacts on a nuclear deal. The U.S. has said the secrecy was necessary to maintain the sensitive bilateral channel, and they did not mean to be deceptive. However, a sense of betrayal may have contributed to Israeli distrust and denunciations of the interim Iran nuclear deal reached in Geneva last November, US and Israeli sources have told Al-Monitor. The US and Israel have been working to try to rebuild trust that took a hit over the Iran back channel episode.

If a nuclear deal is reached that allows Iran to maintain a nuclear threshold capacity, it could emerge from economic sanctions and seek European and Japanese technology to develop itself as an industrial power, while maintaining antagonistic policies in the region, Israeli sources have described official thinking in interviews this week.

Israel and Sunni powers fear Iran would be empowered by the lifting of sanctions after a prospective nuclear deal, while sponsoring actions and proxy groups that pose a threat to their stability, and competing for power and influence in the region and beyond.

Former US and international officials involved in track 2 conversations with Iran have been considering the utility of such a format to try to address deep regional mistrust of Iran amid the growing prospect that it could emerge from diplomatic and economic isolation if a nuclear deal s reached.

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the White House on March 5, 2012 in Washington, DC. By Amos Ben Gershom/Israel GPO via Getty Images.)

Possible Arak compromise seen bolstering confidence in Iran talks


Iran and six world powers are closer to agreement on possible technical modifications for the uncompleted Arak reactor that would greatly reduce proliferation concerns, bolstering negotiators’ confidence as they try to reach a final nuclear deal by July 20th, Iranian and US non-proliferation experts briefed on the discussions said.

The Arak issue “is almost solved,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator now at Princeton University, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“I think Arak has been the big area where there has been a narrowing” of differences between Iran and the P5+1, Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“Both sides are being positive in their remarks,” Fitzpatrick said. “Part of this positive spin [is that] they are reaching a solution to Arak.”

The possible compromise framework, Mousavian said, is “almost the same” as a plan proposed by a team of Princeton University nuclear experts led by Frank von Hippel in an article entitled ‘A Win-Win Solution on Iran’s Arak reactor,’ that was published this month by Arms Control Today.

“I believe Tehran and the US both agree this framework can work to resolve” the matter, Mousavian said.

Under the plan proposed by von Hippel and colleagues, “the amount of plutonium produced in the Arak reactor could be reduced drastically” by converting “the reactor from using natural uranium fuel to low-enriched uranium fuel,” they write. “With low-enriched fuel, the power could be reduced to 20 or even 10 MWt,” from the reactor’s currently-planned 40-Mwt design, “further reducing plutonium production,” they write.

Their redesign proposals “would reduce plutonium production to less than 1 kilogram per year, comparable to the reduction that would be accomplished by replacing the Arak reactor with a light-water research reactor,” the authors write.

“At the same time, these redesigns would not reduce the usefulness of the reactor for making radioisotopes and conducting research,” they wrote. “Thus, this approach would meet Iran’s needs and would address the concerns of the international community.”

Such modifications, that would “reduce the overall power level of the reactor, and thus decrease the amount of plutonium available in the spent fuel it yields, would indeed significantly reduce the proliferation threat,” Jofi Joseph, a former US government Iran non-proliferation expert said.

“However, this compromise could still run into political opposition from Israel, Gulf States, and the U.S. Congress,” Joseph added, because it still “allows Arak to remain a heavy water moderated reactor. …[which] is not necessary for the production of medical isotopes.”

Mousavian estimated that about 60-70% of the issues for a final nuclear deal may be tentatively agreed or nearly agreed–a slightly more upbeat estimate than the 50-60% offered by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at nuclear talks in Vienna earlier this month.

US negotiators have previously said that no issue is agreed until all of the issues are agreed, and have compared the complex negotiations to a Rubik’s cube.

Among the outstanding issues still to be resolved are Fordo and the overall size of Iran’s enrichment program and the duration of limitations on its size, experts said.

Former State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn, in a paper published by the Brookings Institution last month, proposed that Fordo be converted into a Research & Development facility. He also proposed that Iran and the P5+1 could arrive at a compromise on the size of Iran’s enrichment program by defining its practical needs, which are limited in the medium term.

(Photo: This Aug. 26, 2006 file photo shows an aerial view of a heavy-water production plant in the central Iranian town of Arak. AP Photo/ ISNA, Arash Khamoushi, File)

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. expects drafting of Iran final nuclear deal to begin in May


Six world powers and Iran are on pace to start drafting the text of a comprehensive Iran nuclear accord in May, with the aim of reaching a final agreement by the July 20th expiration of the six month interim deal, a senior U.S. official said Friday ahead of the third round of final deal talks in Vienna next week.

“We have set out a work plan on how to proceed to get a comprehensive agreement…and we are on pace with that work plan and look to begin drafting in May,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in a conference call briefing Friday.

“All of the parties are committed to finishing within the six-month [duration of the] Joint Plan of Action,” the official said. “I am absolutely convinced that we can.”

“So the real issue is not about whether you can write the words on paper,” the U.S. official said. “It’s about the choices Iran has to make, some very difficult, in order to ensure that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon.”

“They will have to make some significant changes and some significant choices,” the official said. “But the drafting is certainly doable.”

There have been no additional US-Iran bilateral meetings outside of those that have taken place on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran meetings in Vienna and been announced, another senior U.S. official told Al-Monitor Friday.

As to whether it is accurate to detect that US officials are expressing more confidence about reaching a final deal, in particular in the six month time frame without needing an extension since comprehensive deal talks got underway, the second U.S. official affirmed that may be the case.

“I think you’re right to say increasing confidence since the talks started – everyone has kept their commitments in implementing the JPOA, we’re having substantive and detailed discussions about the issues that will have to be part of a comprehensive agreement,” the second senior U.S. official said.

But “we are still clear-eyed about how tough this will be,” the second U.S. official added. “The real question is if everyone is willing to make the tough choices this will require.”

The first two rounds of comprehensive deal P5+1/Iran talks to date, supplemented by intensive expert-level talks, have been used to “to go over every single [element of] a future agreement and to make sure we understand each others’ positions on those issues, both at the macro level and the technical level,” the first senior U.S. official said.

Even the early rounds of comprehensive deal talks focused on agenda setting and “laying the table” for drafting the comprehensive accord have been “quite substantive,” the official said.

“When you lay the table, you get down to…serious issues…and in those discussions, one begins to see areas of agreement and areas where [there are] still gaps that have to be overcome,” the official said.

The official spoke in the wake of the release of reports this week by the former top State Department Iran arms control advisor Robert Einhorn, and a Princeton nuclear expert team, that propose ways Iran could keep but modify key facilities in its nuclear program in a final deal, while reducing international proliferation concerns and extending its nuclear breakout time to between six months and a year. Iran has insisted that it be allowed to maintain a domestic enrichment program and that it would not dismantle key facilities, but has expressed willingness to make modifications to the Arak reactor.

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Former U.S. negotiator proposes ways to reach Iran nuclear deal


Iran and six world powers can reach a comprehensive nuclear deal by agreeing on Iran’s practical needs for enrichment, which are limited in the near term; as well as on technical modifications that could be made to the Arak reactor and turning the Fordo enrichment site into a research and development facility, former U.S. nuclear negotiator Robert Einhorn writes in a paper to be released by the Brookings Institution Monday.

“I think of the big issues, Arak is the easiest,” Einhorn told Al-Monitor in an interview last week. “Fordo is hard. But the hardest single issue is enrichment capacity.”

Einhorn, in his Brookings paper, “Preventing a Nuclear Armed-Iran: Requirements for a Comprehensive Iran Nuclear Deal,” released to Al-Monitor in advance, proposes that Iran and the P5+1 define the practical needs for Iran’s civil nuclear program. “Indeed, Iran’s actual need to produce enriched uranium for fueling reactors is quite limited, at least in the near and middle terms,” he writes. “Proposed modifications to Arak [would make it] better for producing medical isotopes,” he said.

Since reaching a breakthrough interim nuclear deal last November, Iran and six world powers have held two rounds of talks to try to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear deal by the July 20th expiration of the six month Joint Plan of Action.

“For the U.S. side,…to get sufficient support domestically and abroad, the U.S. position [on the size of Iran’s enrichment program] will be pretty demanding,” Einhorn, who served as the top State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor until last summer and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said.  “If Iran wants to find a way out, I propose the practical needs issue, [which] gives them a narrative that it could explain that it won on enrichment.”

On enrichment, extending Iran’s potential “breakout” time to between six and twelve months in a final deal “could be achieved by limiting centrifuges to between 2000 and 6000 first-generation IR-1 Iranian centrifuges (or significantly lower numbers if more advanced IR-2m centrifuges are included) and reducing enriched uranium stocks, especially at the near-20 percent level,” Einhorn writes in the Brookings “requirements” paper.

“Whatever numbers and combinations [of centrifuges and uranium stocks] are chosen, lengthening the breakout timeline to between six and twelve months would require substantial reductions in current Iranian centrifuge and stockpile levels,” he writes.

On the Arak IR-40, Einhorn proposes that, at a minimum, “changes should be made in the reactor’s design to greatly reduce its production of plutonium, especially to fuel it with enriched uranium and reduce its power level,” he writes. “The best solution would be to convert it to a light water-moderated research reactor, but other options requiring less extensive modification of the reactor are being explored.”

However, “if you can’t get the Iranians to switch [Arak] to a light water reactor, you could limit the power of the Arak reactor” from 40 MW to 10 MW, and instead of natural fuel, feed low enriched fuel into it, George Perkovich, a non-proliferation expert who serves as vice president and director of non-proliferation studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al-Monitor. “Then [you could] control how long it stays in the reactor, which actually makes better medical isotopes…If you do all these things, it dramatically reduces the amount of plutonium in spent fuel,” to about 6kg a year, Perkovich said.

“That’s a serious impediment to a breakout,” Perkovich said. “That would be less than a bomb’s worth of plutonium produced [a year].”

In addition, Perkovich said, “Any proposed agreement says ‘no reprocessing.’ So the reduced plutonium concentration in spent fuel in a safeguarded reactor is a barrier added to the more fundamental barrier that Iran agrees to fore-go reprocessing and not have a facility for it.”

Can the parties reach a deal by July 20th? Or will they need an extension?

“I think both parties really do have a strong incentive to get it done in six months,” Einhorn said. “I don’t think either party has an incentive to extend it.”

However, he said, while “both sides genuinely want to reach agreement and want to create the perception that agreement is possible…[to] generate momentum, the reality is the substantive positions” are still far apart.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at the conclusion of the last round of comprehensive deal talks in Vienna this month, said reaching a final deal before the July 20 expiration of the six month Joint Plan of Action is possible.

“On four topics (Arak heavy water reactor, removal of sanctions, nuclear cooperation and uranium enrichment) we see signs of reaching an understanding which will protect the rights of the Iranian nation and move towards removal of problems,” Zarif told  Iranian reporters in Vienna March 19.

In the next round of talks, to be held in Vienna April 7-9, Zarif said the issues on the agenda to be discussed are “Iran’s access to technology, trade market and banking resources as well as the manner of inspections (of Iran’s nuclear facilities) and the period of time needed for the final phase,” Zarif said, Fars News reported.

The “brinksmanship” in the weeks of negotiations leading up to July 20 interim deal deadline could be useful for narrowing gaps in positions.

“The problem as we get closer to July, is [if the parties need an extension,] then it will be [seen as] a crisis,” Perkovich said.

(Photo of former State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor Robert Einhorn by AFP/Getty Images.)

In Iran new year’s address, Khamenei questions Holocaust


Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivering his annual Persian New Year’s address, struck a defensive tone about Iran’s renewed international engagement, warning that Iran has to develop its internal economic and cultural resources as a bulwark against outside influences, and cannot count on the West for sanctions relief.

“A nation that is not strong will be oppressed,” Khamenei, 74, speaking from his hometown of Mashhad on the Nowruz holiday, said Friday. Iran should not count on “when the enemy will lift the sanctions,” he warned.

In the most controversial of his remarks Friday, Khamenei said the West accuses Iran of restricting free expression, but in many parts of Europe and the West, Holocaust denial is against the law.

“Expressing opinion about the Holocaust, or casting doubt on it, is one of the greatest sins in the West,” Khamenei said. “They prevent this, arrest the doubters, try them while claiming to be a free country.”

“They passionately defend their red lines,” Khamenei said. “How do they expect us to overlook our red lines that are based on our revolutionary and religious beliefs.”

Khamenei’s comments Friday threaten to undo months of uphill efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to try to repair Iran’s image in the West from the legacy of Holocaust denial and threats to wipe out Israel made by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Last fall, Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to send out Rosh Hashanah well wishes to Jews in Iran and around the world on the Jewish New Year’s holiday. Zarif, speaking to German television last month, acknowledged that a “horrifying tragedy” occurred in the Holocaust, and said that “it should never occur again.”

Ron Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress, blasted Khamenei’s comments Friday, saying they show that “it is not a new Iran, but the same Iran with a new face.”

“Ayatollah Khamenei’s words are unmistakable: he denies the Holocaust happened,” Lauder said in a statement to the Jerusalem Post. “Iran needs to renounce Holocaust denial, extremism, and bigotry if the world is to have any faith in its conduct and intentions. Until then, the West needs to be very careful in in engaging with Tehran.”

Trita Parsi, author of two books on Iran, said Khamenei’s remarks on Holocaust denial were deeply disappointing, and said they may be a sign that he is worried about protecting his system as he reluctantly permits Rouhani to pursue growing international engagement with the outside world to try to seek sanctions relief.

Khamenei’s Holocaust denial remarks are “extremely problematic and deeply disappointing, because these things do undermine a very carefully constructed, useful atmosphere that has been built, that can help facilitate a [nuclear] agreement,” Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, told Al-Monitor Friday.

Khamenei’s remarks were intended to “keep the revolutionary ideology on high volume,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst now with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor.

“But note of course that Holocaust denial was never unique to Ahmadinejad,” Maloney added. “Everything that Khamenei said in this speech, he has said before.”

“Just because [Khamenei] supports nuclear negotiations doesn’t mean he has had a change of heart regarding Israel and the West,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, said Friday. “And while he supports Rouhani’s negotiations, he is very suspicious that his government is going to open up Iran to Western cultural influences.”

“It’s important to understand, this is a person who is doing something that he is afraid of,” Parsi said of Khamenei, who has served as Iran’s Supreme Leader since 1989. He “is permitting a different team of people to start doing things that are opening up Iran. He’s skeptical about it. But he is also afraid of it, that he cannot control what happens afterwards.”

Former Obama officials propose talking with Iran on Syria aid

Amid deepening US-Russia strains over Ukraine, two former Obama administration officials say it may be time for the US to explore trying to develop a channel with Iran to discuss Syria, beginning with humanitarian relief.

While Iran, like Russia, doesn’t want to see Bashar al-Assad forced out, “its broader attitude toward the United States is cautiously warming,” and its leverage on Assad is far greater than Russia’s, Jonathan Stevenson, a former Obama National Security Council official, wrote in the New York Times this week (March 12, 2014). “This puts America and Iran somewhat closer on Syria than they may appear.”

“My bottom line sense with the Iranians is there’s hope for a US-Iran conversation [on Syria humanitarian aid] that is a serious and potentially productive one,” Frederic Hof, a former senior US diplomat advising the Obama administration on Syria and the Levant, told Al-Monitor.in an interview last week.

In track 2 conversations with Iranians that Hof has been involved in, “the people I talk to are blunt:  they are not interested in talking about a [Syria] political transition,” Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said. “They need Assad and regime support to Hezbollah in Lebanon as Iran’s first line of defense against Israel and the possibility of an Israeli air assault on their nuclear facilities.”

“Humanitarian aid is where to start—establishing localized ceasefires, facilitating aid access,” Stevenson, a former director for political-military affairs for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama administration, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Friday. Focusing on humanitarian issues initially makes sense, he said, especially given reluctance by both sides to hold “major political discussions,” and with both the US and Iran focused in the near term on the imperative of trying to reach a nuclear deal.

When Secretary of State John Kerry raised Syria at a meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last month, Zarif told Kerry that he was not authorized to discuss Syria, the State Department said. That may not be a feint, some Iran analysts suggest.  While Iran’s Supreme Leader has authorized Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif to try to negotiate a nuclear deal, “I think it’s been clear from day one that Khamenei does not want to put all his cards on the table,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran research at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor in an interview last month. “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.”

That may be the case, Stevenson acknowledged. “The point, though, is to tease out just how resistant they are to putting Syria on the table,” said Stevenson, who left the NSC last May and is now a professor of strategy studies at the Naval War College. “That is why it doesn’t make sense to try to do this through Geneva.”

Stevenson recommended that the US and Iran “keep strictly separate tracks”  between the nuclear talks and any prospective Syria discussions. “It should be made clear by our side, and reciprocated, that there can’t be any linkage,” he said. “For optics, you would want to keep the nuclear track the top priority, and to designate for the Syria conversation a senior State Department official not involved in the nuclear talks.”

“On Syria, the challenge on our side is always bureaucratic stove-piping,” Hof agreed. Those “in charge of the US role in the P5+1 will absolutely oppose any kind of cross -pollination or discussion about Syria. So it takes a decision almost at the highest level,” at the Kerry-Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns level, to try to pursue a Syria channel with Iran.

One official who might make sense to tap for such exploratory US Iran talks on Syria, a former official suggested, would be Puneet Talwar, who until recently served as the Obama NSC Senior Director for Gulf affairs, and who has been involved in US-Iran back channel talks to establish a bilateral diplomatic channel to advance a nuclear deal. Talwar was confirmed on Thursday as Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, and is no longer expected to be part of the US team involved in the P5+1 Iran nuclear negotiations.

Other possible officials to consider include Salman Ahmed, a counselor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice involved in the recent Syria talks in Geneva, who previously advised Rice at the UN, and before that served as a senior official in the UN Department of Political Affairs; or Rob Malley, Talwar’s successor as the NSC Senior Director for Gulf Affairs, who previously served in the Clinton White House and as Middle East director for the International Crisis Group; or Daniel Rubenstein, the former US Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan who will be tapped to succeed Robert Ford as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor reported..

Hof said he raised with Iranian interlocutors in track 2 talks the prospect of a scenario in which a “Srebrenica-style moment” occurred in Syria, as the Iran and the P5+1 were advancing a nuclear deal. A scenario in which “your client does something so outrageous, that it inspires POTUS to do what he declined to do in August or September,” Hof said. “To the extent you guys are serious on the nuclear front, what does that do to that progress?” Hof asked his Iranian interlocutors. “And they looked at one another and shrugged, because their attitude is, Assad is not the most reliable guy in the world.”

Iranians in the track 2 discussions have also expressed some problems with the UN role in Syria, Hof said, suggesting that any US-Iran channel on Syria not be through UN auspices.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, writing at Al-Monitor March 5, 2014, proposed a four-part plan for resolving the Syria crisis. In it, Amir-Abdollahian wrote that the “the provision of immediate humanitarian aid is a religious and humanitarian duty,” and that the “UN’s neutral role is significant,” perhaps hinting that Iran found the UN’s role on Syria to be less than neutral.

Amir-Abdollahian, a former Iranian ambassador to Bahrain, was among the Iranian officials who in 2007 met with US diplomats in Iraq. The trilateral US-Iran-Iraq talks on Iraq were led on the US side by then US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who found them unproductive. Was Amir-Abdollahian’s piece this month a signal of Iran interest in discussing Syria?

“Reinforcing the political track and facilitating comprehensive talks is the most appropriate method to achieve a political solution,” Amir-Abdollahian wrote. “Alongside national talks inside Syria, boosting genuine talks at both the regional and the international level is very important.”

(Photo of then US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker meeting with Iranian and Iraqi officials in Iraq in 2007 posted by the Iranian Supreme Leader’s official website March 14, 2013.)

US staffs up to pursue intensified Iran final deal talks


Diplomats and experts from six world powers and Iran have staffed up to pursue intensified, almost “constant” contacts to try to reach a final nuclear deal, a senior US administration official said Friday, ahead of a second round of political directors-Iran nuclear talks in Vienna next week. The parties have already agreed that sanctions relief in a final deal would be phased in, step by step, in response to specific action that Iran takes, the official said.

“These comprehensive negotiations will not be done for three days a month by the political directors,” the senior US administration official said. “Our experts have been and will be in constant contact between these rounds.”

“For example, last week, our experts spent a full week in Vienna to talk through various issues at a detailed level and explore options for a comprehensive solution,” the US official said. “When not in Vienna, they are back in capitals communicating with one another and working through various technical issues that are part of the negotiations.”

Lead US negotiator at the talks, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, spoke at length individually with every political director from the P5+1—the US, UK, France, China, Russia plus Germany—this past week, the US official said. Tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine do not appear to have yet impacted P5+1 co-ordination in the Iran negotiations, the official suggested, saying it was a US hope and priority that it does not.

Former Deputy US UN ambassador Brooke Anderson has joined the US Iran nuclear negotiating team as a senior advisor to Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry. Anderson, the former Obama National Security Council chief of staff, will be based out of Brussels full-time to coordinate with European Union negotiators and P5+1 partners and Washington, amid ongoing expert and political level consultations. The US has also added several more experts to its team, and several officials, particularly from the US Department of Energy, will be joining the negotiations in Vienna, the official said.

The US has not had bilateral talks with Iran since their meeting on the sidelines of the P5+1/Iran talks in Vienna last month, the U.S. official said.

To date, Iran and the P5+1 have fulfilled their commitments in the Joint Plan of Action, the six month interim nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November, the US official said. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently verified that Iran has diluted half of its 20% stockpile, among other steps laid out in the interim deal, the official noted.

The parties’ ability to reach the interim deal has given then a bit more confidence that they may be able to reach a final deal, she said, adding, however, that there are no guarantees.

With no issue agreed until all the issues are agreed, the final deal talks are like a “Rubik’s cube,” the US official said,  “a puzzle that has to be put together….over the course of the negotiations, until one has narrowed [it] down to the few toughest parts.”

In terms of some of those toughest issues, such as past possible military dimensions (PMDs) to Iran’s nuclear program, and ballistic missiles, the JPOA says that all UN Security Council resolutions on Iran must be addressed before a comprehensive agreement is reached, the US official said. “There are a variety of things in the UN Security Council resolutions, including the issue of ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. All of this will have to be addressed in some way.” But the US official did not elaborate on what would constitute satisfactorily addressing the issue. The more that Iran can demonstrate transparency to the IAEA, including on PMDs, the better the odds of reaching a final deal, the official said.

Regarding Iranian enrichment, the US official said while the US prefers that Iran supply its civil nuclear energy program without a domestic enrichment program, “we understand Iran feels strongly” that it should have one. “The JPOA envisions that a domestic enrichment program can be the subject of [comprehensive deal] discussions,” the official said. If all the parties to the comprehensive talks agree, “the program will be quite limited, under heavy monitoring and verification, for very specific purposes.”

Regarding sanctions relief for a possible final deal, the US official said, “we need to understand in great detail how to unwind sanctions, what by the executive branch, what by waivers, what by Congressional action. We are detailing all of that.”

The US, its P5+1 partners and Iran have agreed that “any sanctions relief [in a final deal] should… be phased in…in response to actions that Iran takes,” the US official said.  “It will happen over time, step by step.”

(Top Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman after the P5+1 reached a nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva, Switzerland, Nov. 24, 2013. // State Department Photo. Second photo, former US Ambassador to the UN Brooke Anderson has joined the US nuclear negotiating team as a senior advisor and will be based out of Brussels.)

Kaine: Israel stance ‘no, no, no’ on Iran enrichment

Israel’s stance on acceptable terms for a final Iran nuclear deal remains as uncompromising as that which divided Washington and Jerusalem on the merits of an interim nuclear deal last fall, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) said Monday following a trip last week to the Middle East.

“Their position is no, no, no: No enrichment, no centrifuges, no weaponization program,” Kaine, referring to Israeli leaders, said in answer to a question on a conference call briefing with journalists Monday on his trip last week to Israel, Ramallah, Lebanon and Egypt.

Netanyahu, in a meeting with Senators Kaine and Angus King (Independent-Maine) in Israel last week, “said nothing about the pending legislation,” Kaine said, referring to stalled Iran sanctions legislation co-sponsored  by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Ron Kirk (R-Illinois). “He expressed what he has [previously] expressed. He has not backed away one iota [from his position] that the interim deal is a bad idea in his view. But he acknowledged…that the deal is done.”

Now the Israeli leader is turning his focus to how to “structure the final deal …so that it accomplishes what needs to be accomplished, and what would such a deal look like,” Kaine said, adding that Netanyahu did not refer to specific draft U.S. legislation on the matter. “He’s aware that if we can’t find an acceptable deal, it’s not hard to get Congress to pass more sanctions.”

When Netanyahu comes to Washington next week to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference and to meet with President Obama, “I suspect that rather than a speech that three quarter deals with” the six month Join Plan of Action that went into effect last  month, he will spend “a lot of time on what should be the components of a final deal” and what “assurances will be needed.”

Asked if the Israeli leader had shown any signs of softening his maximalist positions from last fall that an acceptable Iran nuclear deal could allow no centrifuges or domestic Iranian enrichment, Kaine said no.

“I understand and they [the Israelis] understand that this is a negotiation,” Kaine said. “At the end of the day, we have the same goal of a diplomatic solution, [of Iran] without a nuclear weapon and easy ability to produce a nuclear weapon. Exactly how to define that question of what is acceptable in terms of nuclear research and what is unacceptable, that gets too close to a weapon, there are some gray areas.”

“The US and Israeli perspectives may be a little different,” Kaine continued. “That demands communication.”

“I would like there to be zero enrichment, I would like there to be no facilities, I would like there not to be an indigenous program,” lead US Iran negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy  Sherman told journalists in Israel over the weekend. “I think I would like many things in life. But that does not mean I will always get them, and that is not necessarily the only path to ensuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon and that the international community can have confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its program.”

Kaine also said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders expressed gratitude for Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to advance a framework for an Israel-Palestine two state solution, but that both expressed doubts the other side was willing to make the necessary compromises and concessions for it to succeed.

In Lebanon, he said Lebanese leaders told him and King that they appreciated US financial support for humanitarian efforts to support the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the country, but that what was needed is to improve conditions inside Syria to slow the refugee exodus and move to end the conflict. He and King were preparing to leave a briefing at the US embassy in Beirut last week when a suicide blast went off some five miles south at an Iranian cultural center, killing several people–the latest sign of sectarian spillover violence from Syria’s civil war that threatens to destabilize its neighbors.

Kaine, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Near East and South Asia subcommittee, plans to hold a subcommittee hearing on Lebanon on Tuesday.

Photo: Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), right, meets in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Sen. Angus King (I-Me.), via Washington Jewish Week.