Nuclear negotiators still waiting for Iran RSVP

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The government of Iran has still not gotten back to international negotiators about a prospective date and venue for a new round of nuclear talks with six world powers, a diplomat told the Back Channel Sunday.

“No news,” a spokesperson for the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told the Back Channel by email Sunday in response to a query.

Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid held a telephone call with deputy Iran nuclear negotiator Dr. Ali Bagheri on December 12th to propose possible dates and the venue of Istanbul for a new meeting. Although one date proposed was December 20, several western diplomats said their expectation was that a new meeting would not materialize until January.

Meantime, Iran is due to host a senior team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Iran on January 16th.

Amid the uncertainty on when nuclear negotiations will resume, the Obama administration gave a somewhat upbeat assessment to the New York Times last week about Iran’s having held flat its stockpile of higher enriched uranium last summer.

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US mulls “go big” approach to Iran over incremental deal

I report on the front page:

The Obama administration is considering putting forward a broader proposal to Iran, rather than the more incremental one presented at a meeting last month in Baghdad, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

Those arguing in favor of the “go big” approach say their thinking has been influenced by two recent diplomatic encounters with Iran that cast doubt on the viability of an incremental deal, as well as by Israeli concerns over any interim deal being the last one reached with Iran for the next few years, officials said.

“The Israelis are concerned that once you get a deal, it will be the last deal for a long time — the next two to three years,” a Western official told Al-Monitor Thursday on condition of anonymity.

“So the Israelis are afraid that we will agree to a s—– deal, and tell ourselves it’s only the initial step,” the official continued. No new sanctions are likely to be imposed at that point, even if the parties do not go on to agree to other steps, as currently planned, the official said about Israeli thinking.

The current Obama administration discussion revives a debate that took place among US officials much of last year about whether to propose a big or more incremental offer to Iran. Senior policy officials at the Defense Department are said to have favored offering a bigger deal to Iran, accompanied by a military threat were it not accepted. They were countered by officials, mostly at the State Department, who argued that there was such a lack of trust or diplomatic contact between the West and Iran that it was more prudent to first propose a smaller confidence-building measure. The group that argued for an incremental approach prevailed as talks resumed in Istanbul in April.

International negotiators have, to date, proposed a step-by-step incremental process for resolving international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. They laid out a detailed proposal for an interim confidence-building measure at their last meeting with Iran in Baghdad in May. That proposal asked Iran to stop its 20 percent enrichment activities, ship out its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, and halt operations at Fordo, a fortified, uranium-enrichment site near the Iranian city of Qom. In return, the international community offered various cooperation with Iran’s civil-nuclear program, isotopes for Iran’s medical reactor, and a lifting of sanctions on exports of US civilian aircraft parts for Iran.

“The Iranians made clear at Baghdad they were not interested in the package,” the Western official said.

“Our basic position is versatile concessions for versatile concessions, and irreversible concessions for irreversible concessions,” he said about the administration’s thinking. “We would view an irreversible concession as the lifting of sanctions. And in return they would have to take an irreversible step.” [...]

Go read the whole thing, and why the United States would really like to be speaking with Iran directly.