US energy envoy Pascual to step down

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US Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs Carlos Pascual announced Friday he will step down in July, U.S. officials told the Back Channel.

The departure plans come as oil proces have spiked amid the new security crisis in Iraq, as al Qaeda-linked the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overtook the city of Mosul.

Pascual, a former US envoy to Mexico and Ukraine, stood up the new energy affairs bureau three years ago, but was never confirmed. He is expected to head next to Columbia University.

Pascual’s deputy Amos Hochstein is considered a possible nominee to succeed him.

Deal could double Iran breakout time: ex-US official

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Washington, D.C.__ A former senior Obama Administration official told the House Foreign Affairs Committee today that the deal proposed to Iran by the P5+1 countries in Geneva last weekend would “double Iran’s breakout time.”

“That means it would take Iran twice as long” to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl told the committee. “That is meaningful. The deal puts firm restrictions on Iran building fuel assemblies for the Arak fuel reactor.” It would “increase the inspections regime. [It] serves US and Israeli interests.”

Kahl testified that under the deal presented by six world powers to Iran at the end of a three day meeting in Geneva last weekend, Iran would suspend 20% enrichment, neutralize its 20% stockpile, refrain from building fuel assemblies at the Arak reactor and from installing new centrifuges, allow more inspections of nuclear facilities, as well as restrict the growth of its 3.5% stockpile.

In return for Iran suspending those activities for 6 months as part of the first phase of a two-part deal, Iran would receive under $10 billion in sanctions relief, including on the auto, gold and petrochemical industries, and access to approximately $3 billion in hard currency assets frozen in banks abroad.

The sanctions relief envisaged in the first phase of the deal involves “nothing permanent if the Iranians reverse course,” Kahl, now associate professor at Georgetown University, said. “Nothing [in it] guts the oil and banking sanctions,” which would be subject to reaching a comprehensive agreement that the parties aim to negotiate during the six month first phase.

“The bigger risk is to escalate the sanctions at a sensitive moment of diplomacy and watch diplomacy careening off the cliff,” Kahl warned.

An Israeli official said Wednesday, however, that the Israeli government assessed that the measures proposed in the phase 1 deal would lengthen Iran’s breakout time by only a few weeks, and would potentially offer Iran many billions of dollars more in sanctions relief.

But an analysis by former weapons inspector David Albright shared with Kahl calculated that removing Iran’s 20% enriched uranium increases the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons grade uranium for one weapon from 1.3-2.3 months to 3.1-3.5 months, Kahl said.

The House Iran hearing came as the Obama administration mounted a full court press to lobby Congress against moving new Iran sanctions legislation now as negotiations with Iran make headway.

American, European and Iranian negotiators said significant progress was made at three days of talks in Geneva November 9-11th, but it would take at least another meeting to close an agreement. A new meeting between the P5+1 and Iran, at the political director level, is scheduled for next week, November 21-22.

Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with members of the Senate Banking committee behind closed doors Wednesday to press for a delay in legislation under consideration by the panel to tighten loopholes in existing Iran sanctions.

Advocates of increasing the sanctions now say they would increase western negotiators’ leverage and keep psychological pressure on Iran’s leadership, as well as deter foreign companies looking for a wink to resume business with Iran. But US negotiators insist new sanctions now, when Iran is trying to negotiate a deal, would backfire, and risk Iran retreating from the policy of engagement promoted by the new Hassan Rouhani administration and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

New sanctions now could “wind up setting us back in dialogue that has taken 30 years to be able to achieve,” Kerry said as he arrived at the Senate Banking committee Wednesday. “What we are asking everybody to do, is calm down. Look hard at what can be achieved, what the realities are.”

Western officials say that the six powers achieved consensus on a draft proposal that was presented to Iran’s Zarif only in the last hours of the meeting in Geneva. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius raised objections to the text Kerry had been negotiating with Zarif at a meeting hosted by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Geneva Friday.

Though US President Obama and French President Francois Hollande, in a phone call Wednesday, stressed their joint support for the unified P5+1 proposal,
French ambassador to Israel Patrick Maisonneuve told a press conference in Tel Aviv Wednesday that “all of the world powers that negotiated with Iran in Geneva fell in line with the French position,” Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reported.

American diplomats–excited about the first sustained, direct US-Iran negotiations in thirty years, and concerned about opposition to a deal from Congress, Israel and Sunni Gulf allies–may have underestimated the ambivalence and even resentment some P5+1 partners may have felt about the five hour Kerry-Zarif-Ashton meeting on a draft accord in Geneva Friday in which other P5+1 powers were not included. Some European allies, led by France, may have sought to slow down what they saw as an overly hasty deal, some sources suggested.

“We are negotiating for more than 10 years,” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “I think this complex, sensitive question can afford ten more days of negotiations.”

“We made fantastic progress in Geneva,” he added. “We are not far from an agreement.”

The P5+1 nuclear proposal to Iran in Almaty: Document

Six world powers presented an updated nuclear proposal to Iran at a meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February.

Here follows the P5+1’s Almaty confidence building proposal that was further discussed with Iran nuclear experts at technical talks in Istanbul on March 18th, and which remains on the table today.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson first reported on the details of the proposal, which he obtained from one of the negotiating parties, in April.

A western official, speaking not for attribution Sunday, confirmed to Al-Monitor the proposal is authentic.

The P5+1 confidence building proposal calls on Iran to suspend 20% enrichment; ship out the 20% stockpile it doesn’t require for medical use; agree to enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring; and suspend operations at, but not dismantle the cascades, at the fortified Fordow enrichment facility; for a period of six months. In return, it offers relief from United States and European Union sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals and petrochemical sales; the licensing of US repairs to Iran civilian aircraft; as well as to impose no new United Nations or EU proliferation sanctions.

If Iran agreed to the CBM proposal, “during the six months, negotiations would proceed on further steps, including a comprehensive long-term agreement that would restore the international community’s confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful, respect’s Iran’s rights to peaceful nuclear energy, and terminate sanctions,” the proposal states. “In return for further significant action by Iran to address concerns about its nuclear program, the U.S. and the EU would be prepared to take comparable action, including proportionate relief of oil sanctions.”

Al-Monitor previously reported (March 26) that Iran expressed willingness at the Istanbul technical talks to suspend 20% enrichment and continue converting its 20% stockpile to oxide. But it raised objections to other requested measures, including suspending lower level enrichment at Fordow, shipping out its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, and increased IAEA monitoring.

Iran issued a counter-proposal at the second day of Almaty2 talks April 6th, in which it said it would agree to suspend 20% enrichment and continue converting its stockpile of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas to oxide, in exchange for recognition of its right to enrich and a lifting of some banking sanctions, nonproliferation expert sources told Al-Monitor last month. Western officials characterized the Iranian counter-offer as asking for a lot, and offering very little.

Iran’s presidential candidates sharply challenged Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili at a televised campaign debate last week on why there had been no progress in nuclear talks. Notably, Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei and former Iranian foreign minister, derided Jalili as ineffective and pedantic, saying negotiating involves more than lecturing the other side about one’s positions, but getting results.

“You want to take three steps and you expect the other side to take 100 steps, this means that you don’t want to make progress,” Velayati chided Jalili in the June 7 debate, the Christian Science Monitor reported. “This is not diplomacy…. We can’t expect everything and give nothing.”

“What people are seeing, Mr. Jalili, is that you have not gone forward even one step, and the pressure of sanctions still exists,” Velayati added.

Jalili, who has served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator since 2007, refuted the criticism, saying that the Supreme Leader, briefed on the Almaty discussions, had approved of his negotiating stance.

The Almaty Confidence Building Proposal below the jump:

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Exxon may pull out of southern Iraq

Exxon Mobil intends to pull out of southern Iraq, in favor of moving forward with its Kurdish oil contracts, an energy expert source told Al-Monitor Wednesday on condition of anonymity. The oil giant’s contracts with Iraq’s Kurdish entity have been a source of ongoing legal dispute with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.

Exxon Mobil informed the State Department this week of its intent to pull out of southern Iraq, Reuters subsequently confirmed Thursday, citing an unnamed American official.

Exxon had sought unsuccessfully to renegotiate the terms of its contract with Baghdad central government authorities, but Iraqi leaders had not been willing to set such a precedent, the western energy expert source said.

Baghdad will be even less inclined to do so if Exxon moves forward with its Kurdish Regional Government oil exploration contracts, Iraq expert Denise Natali said.

Exxon has signed contracts to start drilling in Kurdish Iraq by the end of the year, Ben Lando, of the Iraq Oil Report, reported Thursday. “The company ‘will start moving dirt in December,'” one official told Lando.

The oil giant may be gambling, however, that it can “leverage Baghdad through the KRG,” Natali told Al-Monitor Thursday. Unlike smaller oil companies, “it has lots of time.”

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The return of Prince Bandar; Iran, Israel athletes may compete at Olympics

(Photo: Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan (R) welcomes ex-UK PM Tony Blair in Jeddah September 3, 2007.  REUTERS/Saudi Press Agency/Handout.)

 

Pentagon plans mine-sweeping exercise in Persian Gulf

The United States will lead its largest ever mine-sweeping exercise with some 20 other nations in the Persian Gulf in September, the Pentagon said Tuesday. The multi-national exercises, to be held Sept. 16-27, are “defensive,” it stressed, and aimed at preserving freedom of the seas and deterring any potential threat to close the Strait of Hormuz.

“This is not an exercise that’s aimed to deliver a message to Iran,” Pentagon spokesman George Little stressed in a press briefing with Pentagon reporters, Defense News reported.

This is a ‘”defensive exercise” that is “aimed at preserving freedom of navigation in international waterways in the Middle East,” Little said.

“The Pentagon is building a missile-defense radar station at a secret site in Qatar and organizing its biggest-ever minesweeping exercises in the Persian Gulf, as preparations accelerate for a possible flare-up with Iran, according to U.S. officials,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. Continue reading

Iran, EU deputy nuclear negotiators to meet July 24

The deputy nuclear negotiators for Iran and the six-nation P5+1 negotiating group will meet in Istanbul on July 24th, a European Union spokesman said Monday.

Deputy EU foreign policy chief Helga Schmid will meet with her Iranian counterpart Ali Bagheri in Turkey to try to find a way to bridge significant gaps in the two sides’ positions.

“The objective for the meeting of Schmid and Bagheri is to look further at how existing gaps in positions could be narrowed and how the process could be moved forward,” Michael Mann, an EU spokesman, said in an emailed statement sent to Al-Monitor Monday.

The meeting plans come a week after nuclear experts from the seven nations met in Istanbul for over 15 hours last week to discuss the technical details of a P5+1 confidence building proposal. That proposal, first presented to Iran in Baghdad in May, asks Iran to halt its 20% enrichment activities, ship out its 20% stockpile, and decommission the highly fortified Fordo enrichment facility, built into a mountain near Qom, in exchange for fuel and safety upgrades for Tehran’s medical and civilian eactors and spare parts for its civilian aircraft.

Negotiations between senior diplomats from the P5+1 and Iran stalled in Moscow last month over wide gaps between the two sides’ positions. Iran had expressed willingness to discuss halting its 20% enrichment activities, but sough recognition in turn for its right to enrich to 3.5%, while raising objections to the two other international demands. Iran has since made public the proposal (.pdf) it made to the P5+1 in Moscow. Continue reading

Iran Seeks Sustained Dialogue

Barbara Slavin reports:

As Iran and world powers agreed to continue talking, Iranian officials put forward a detailed explanation of their point of view including a proposal for high-level negotiations every three months.

A 10-page document (.pdf) given Tuesday (July 3) to Iran experts by Iran’s mission to the United Nations also calls for lifting all sanctions against Iran and a framework for “comprehensive and targeted dialogue for long term cooperation” that goes beyond the nuclear issue. It includes elements of a bigger bargain normalizing Iran’s status in the international community.

Among four “objectives” for the proposed dialogue, sanctions relief is listed first. The goal, the paper says, is “to normalize Iran’s nuclear file in the UN Security Council and in the [International Atomic Energy Agency] Board of Governors by total termination of the UNSC, unilateral and multilateral sanctions against Iran.”

The priority is not surprising given the fact that draconian new sanctions went into effect July 1 that bar European countries from importing Iranian oil and insuring Iranian oil shipments to others. Iran also faces sanctions under four UN resolutions and a raft of unilateral US penalties. Its oil exports have dropped by a million barrels a day since last year and historic rival Iraq is now pumping more oil. While Iran is practiced in adapting to sanctions, its people are struggling to deal with a collapsed currency and inflation of more than 30 percent.

In addition to sanctions relief, Iran wants recognition of its right to enrich uranium in exchange for continuing to fulfill its obligations to keep its nuclear program open to international inspections.

Iran also seeks cooperation on nuclear safety and newer nuclear technology than a half-century old Tehran reactor that makes medical isotopes and a hodge-podge Russian-German nuclear power plant at Bushehr that has yet to become fully operational. Continue reading

US to announce more countries waived from Iran sanctions

The United States will soon announce a list of more countries to receive waivers from US sanctions on Iran’s central bank, set to go into effect later this month, Reuters reports:

The latest round of U.S. sanctions come into effect on June 28 and aims to cut Iran’s oil revenue to pressure Tehran into halting its nuclear program, which Western powers suspect is aimed at developing nuclear arms.

The U.S. can exempt countries from sanctions if they make significant reductions to crude imports, and granted a waiver to Japan and 10 European countries in March.

The official declined to give more details on which countries would join the exemptions list, but said the U.S. and South Korea had made progress in talks. Continue reading

‘Intense’ Iran nuclear talks end with agreement to meet again

Amman_Iran and six nations ended two days of “intense” and difficult nuclear talks in Baghdad late Thursday with no breakthroughs but a plan to meet again in Moscow next month, I report with Barbara Slavin on the front page:

The chief international negotiator, EU High Rep Catherine Ashton, announced that another meeting would be held in Moscow, with delegations arriving June 17 and meeting June 18-19. She described the two days of discussions with the Iranians in Baghdad as “very intense and detailed.”

American and European diplomats also offered more insight into their theory that their leverage in the negotiations will increase as new sanctions move forward–not by offering Iran a way to avert them.

“Maximum pressure is not yet being felt in Iran,” a senior American diplomat told a group of journalists at the conclusion of the Baghdad talks, on the condition of anonymity. European Union sanctions on Iranian oil and US sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, both due to be fully implemented in July, “increase leverage on the negotiation as it proceeds forward,” the official said.

“The Iranians don’t like it,” the diplomat continued. “They hope and would rather we not put additional sanctions on. Indeed they are not at all pleased that soon after Istanbul, the president [Barack Obama] signed a new executive order [sanctioning Iran for supplying technical assistance to Syria to repress dissidents]. We heard about that.”

Notably, the P5+1 did not make public the detailed package of inducements for a confidence building measure under which Iran would curb its 20% enrichment, as western diplomats indicated earlier in the week they planned to do. Perhaps a sign they may be prepared to sweeten the deal some ahead of the next meeting in Moscow next month, given how coldly it was received by the Iranians.

That’s how negotiations work, perhaps.

Lead American envoy to the talks, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, travels from Amman Jordan today to Israel to consult with Israeli leaders about the talks. She may travel on to Saudi Arabia after that or return to Washington.

Read our full piece here.