US, Iran to hold bilateral nuclear talks in Geneva

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US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will lead a US delegation to meet with Iranian nuclear negotiators in Geneva on June 9-10, US and Iranian officials said Saturday.

The bilateral meetings come as negotiators intensify efforts to see if they can reach a final nuclear accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires, or if they will need to extend the talks for another six months.

“We believe we need to engage in as much active diplomacy as we can to test whether we can reach a diplomatic solution with Iran on its nuclear program,” a senior U.S. administration official said Saturday, noting that the US-Iran consultations “come at an important juncture” of the negotiations, as the “talks are intensifying.”

The meetings are taking place “in the context of the intensified E3/EU+3 negotiating process,” and are coordinated by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, her spokesman Michael Mann said Saturday. Ashton’s deputy, EU political director Helga Schmid will join the US Iran consultations in Geneva, he said, and other bilaterals will follow in the next days.

The US delegation will include, in addition to Burns and Sherman, Vice President Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan, deputy US negotiator Amb. Brooke Amderson, senior arms control advisor Jim Timbie, and NSC senior Middle East advisor Rob Malley, among others, a State Department official told Al-Monitor.

Iran will hold separate meetings with Russian negotiators in Rome on June 11-12, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported Saturday.

20140607-102130.jpgIranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi on Saturday announced that Iran would hold bilateral meetings at the deputy foreign minister level ahead of the next P5+1 Iran nuclear talks, due to be held in Vienna June 16-20.

Burns led a secret US diplomatic “back channel” to Iran last year that culminated in the signing of the interim nuclear deal, known as the Joint Plan of Action, in Geneva last November. Burns’ secret team included Sullivan as well as then NSC Persian Gulf advisor Puneet Talwar, now assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, who has been succeeded by Malley. Burns has announced he will retire in October. The EU’s Ashton, the lead international negotiator for the six world powers, is also due to finish her term in October, adding impetus to complete the negotiations by then.

20140607-104205.jpgUntil now, the US and Iran have not pursued the bilateral channel to advance final deal talks this year, outside of meetings on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran negotiations in Vienna, US and Iranian officials have said. Notably, unlike the secret US-Iran meetings held in Oman, Geneva and New York last year, the US-Iran meeting in Geneva Monday was announced by both sides.

US officials said Saturday it made sense to bring the bilateral channel negotiators involved in advancing the interim deal last fall into the discussions at this critical time.

“It’s natural for Bill and Jake to join the delegation for this meeting given their history of negotiating with Iran during the Joint Plan of Action talks,” the US official said, referring to Burns and Sullivan. “The elements now under discussion in our negotiations over a comprehensive solution were part of the JPOA. So it just makes sense.”

“If a deal is going to be possible by July 20, the Americans and Iranians have to get down to real, no-kidding bottom lines now, and then go back to the P5+1 with the broad outlines of the deal,” former top Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told Al-Monitor Saturday. “These bilateral talks will probably determine whether a July 20 agreement is possible or whether we need to work out an extension.”

“The Iranians, in particular, need to come back with much more flexibility on enrichment, and the U.S. team will also need some creative ideas to address Iran’s ‘practical needs’ argument,” Kahl, now a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), said, referring to the amount of enrichment capacity Iran will need to fuel power reactors and produce medical isotopes.

Iran, in turn, is concerned about the pace of sanctions relief in a final deal, and has balked at a P5+1 proposal that would unwind sanctions on a phased, step by step basis, over as long as a decade or two. Iran also wants to limit the amount of time it would be required to submit to highly intrusive inspections and transparency measures that it fears could be abused by adversaries to snoop on its defense capabilities.

“The addition of Burns and Sullivan, who were essential to the success of behind-the-scenes diplomacy last year, and the bilateral nature of the talks suggests something may be up,” a former senior U.S. official told Al-Monitor Saturday.

“Together with recent news that [Iran Supreme Leader] Khameini is telling hardline critics to get in line behind Iran’s negotiating team, it seems to suggest that negotiations are entering a very serious phase,” the former American official said.

(Top photo of US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns in Wiesbadden in February, 2009 by Reuters. Second photo of US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in Geneva in November, 2013. Third photo: Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, deputy Iranian negotiators Majid Ravanchi and Abbas Araghchi at a P5+1 Iran meeting at the United Nations in New York September 24, 2013.)

Iran, P5+1 to meet June 16-20, EU says

Top European Union and Iranian negotiators on Tuesday called for a new round of Iran nuclear deal talks to be held June 16-20 in Vienna, after two days of “very long and useful discussions” in Istanbul, the EU said Tuesday.

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton held more than eight hours of meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over the past two days in Istanbul, “in order to inform the negotiations” on Iran’s nuclear program, European Union foreign policy spokesman Michael Mann said Tuesday. “They explored different possibilities as part of an ongoing process.”

The next formal round of comprehensive deal talks between the P5+1 and Iran will be held from 16-20 June in Vienna, the EU said.

An experts level meeting should take place before that, June 5-6 in Vienna, the EU later announced.

“Other political discussions will continue as and when needed,” Mann said.

As yet this year, the US and Iran have not pursued bilateral talks outside of meetings on the sidelines of the Vienna talks, US and Iranian officials have told Al-Monitor. But Washington appears to be considering doing so as the parties try to conclude a final accord by the July 20th expiration of a six-month interim deal.

“New options should be looked into and brought forward,” Zarif told journalists upon arrival in Vienna Monday.

Zarif was accompanied to Istanbul by Iran Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzyieh Afkham, Deputy Foreign Ministers Majid Takht Ravanchi and Abbas Araghchi, and the head of Iran’s expert team Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said.

Ashton was thought to be accompanied by Deputy Helga Schmid, chief of staff James Morrison, and nonproliferation advisor Stephan Kllement.

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.

Three days in March: New details on how US, Iran opened direct talks

Late last February, after six world powers and Iran wrapped up nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan (Feb.26-27), two members of the U.S. nuclear negotiating team secretly flew to Oman where they rendezvoused at a beach-front villa with two American officials who had arrived from Washington.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Biden’s national security advisor, flew to the Arabian Sea port of Muscat from Washington. White House Iran advisor Puneet Talwar and State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn flew to Oman from the Almaty nuclear talks.

For the first days of March, the American officials, accompanied by some administrative and logistical support staff, stayed at a beach-side villa owned by Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, whose government had regularly offered to discreetly host US-Iran talks safely away from the media spotlight.

In Oman, the US officials met with an Iranian delegation led by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Asghar Khaji, Al-Monitor has learned.

Khaji, then Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American affairs, had previously served as Iran’s envoy to the European Union in Brussels from 2008 to 2012. In Brussels, in January 2008, Khaji accompanied Iran’s new nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to a dinner hosted by then EU High Rep and chief  nuclear negotiator Javier Solana, a US cable published by Wikileaks notes. In March 2009, Khaji became the first Iranian official to meet with NATO  in almost three decades, to discuss Afghanistan, NATO officials said.

After he became Deputy Foreign Minister in 2012, in his capacity as the Iranian diplomat who oversaw Europe and American issues, Khaji regularly liaised with Swiss officials who serve–in the absence of official US-Iran relations–as the U.S. protecting power in Iran. But Khaji wasn’t a figure particularly well known to western Iran watchers.

In Oman in March, both Khaji’s and Burns’ teams, as well as their Omani hosts, went to some lengths to keep the unusual meeting off the radar. Burns, the second highest diplomat in the United States, did not appear on the State Department public schedules at all the first four days in March, without explanation. Similarly, Iran’s Foreign Ministry and media published nothing about Khaji’s trip to Muscat, although his March 7 trip to Switzerland, a few days after the secret talks with the Americans, was announced by his Swiss Foreign Ministry hosts and received press coverage. The next week in March, Omani media also extensively covered the visit of Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast to Oman, including his visit to the Omani New Agency and with Oman’s Information minister, complete with photos, almost as if it were a decoy mission to draw attention away from the earlier one.

“On every visit to Oman, the U.S. delegation stayed in a beach-side villa controlled by the Omani government,” a source familiar with the meetings told Al-Monitor. “All of the meetings with Iran occurred at this site, so as to ensure U.S. officials would never have to leave the villa and risk detection by journalists or others.”

Both US and Iranian sources briefed on the US-Iran March meeting in Oman say that while it allowed for more candid, direct exchanges than at the seven nation P5+1/Iran talks, that it did not show an opening for real movement in positions on either side before the Iran presidential elections in June.

“It was a useful engagement, but not much progress was made, because the Iran leadership was not really interested,” a former US official, speaking not for attribution, said. “It helped provide some basis [for understanding]… It was clear that while there could be more intensive and candid discussions bilaterally, the real progress wasn’t going to be possible” before the Iranian elections.

Another meeting was tentatively planned to be held in May, another former official told Al-Monitor, but the Iranians apparently backed out.

Oman to US: Iran is ready to begin a quiet dialogue

The Omanis had encouraged the U.S., from before President Barack Obama came into office, to pursue prospects for direct dialogue with Iran, and regularly offered US envoys updates on the current mood in Iran officialdom on the matter.

Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi “offered Oman as both an organizer and a venue for any meeting the U.S. would want with Iran – if kept quiet,” US Ambassador to Oman Richard Schmierer wrote in a December 7, 2009 US cable to Washington, released by Wikileaks.

Iran “is ready to begin a quiet dialogue ‘at a lower level’ with the U.S.,” Sultan Qaboos’ long-time special Iran envoy and Culture Minister Abdul `Aziz al-Rowas told the previous US ambassador Gary Grappo, according to an April 2009 cable he wrote to Washington.

“They are ready and want to start, and you should not wait,” al-Rowas told the US envoy. “You have many more bargaining tools with them than they have against you; use all of them,” he advised, adding that the US and Iran also share interests, too, including in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and countering narcotics in Central Asia. “They don’t like to admit these things, but they need you in the region.”

But efforts by the Obama administration to get direct talks going with Iran were frustrated by domestic turmoil in the wake of Iran’s disputed June 2009 presidential polls. In October 2009, Burns and Iran’s Jallili met one-on-one, on the sidelines of P5+1 Iran nuclear talks in Geneva, at which a nuclear fuel swap deal was announced. But Iran later backed away from the agreement, after it came under domestic criticism.

Increasingly convinced that Iran was paralyzed by domestic political infighting from moving forward on a nuclear compromise, the U.S. and Europeans moved in late 2009 and 2010 to persuade international partners that it was time to increase economic pressure on Iran to try to bring it to seriously negotiate.

“No U.S. president in the last 30 years had gone to as much effort as President Obama to engage Iran,” Burns told China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at a December 2009 meeting, according to a US cable summarizing the meeting. The United States was “frustrated,” Burns explained, that the Iranians had “walked back” from the fuel swap agreement reached in Geneva. Washington “had sought creative solutions to build confidence with Iran…[but] Iran’s failure to follow through…had been disappointing.”

P5+1 talks with Iran ground to a halt at a gloomy January 2011 meeting in Istanbul attended by a grim-faced Burns. Iran’s Jalili, complaining of a headache, had avoided attending most of the meeting, and had refused to meet with Burns. Nuclear talks between the six world powers and Iran would not resume for over a year, until April 2012.

The “bilat” channel gains pace after Rouhani’s election

But the Omanis persisted, throughout the diplomatic stalemate, with their quiet efforts to forge US-Iran dialogue, and their patience eventually paid off.

In 2011 and 2012, Talwar and Sullivan–then serving as deputy chief of staff  and policy planning chief to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–participated in at least two lower-level, “preparatory” meetings with the Iranians, facilitated by the Omanis, to see about the prospect of a bilateral channel to be led on the US side by Burns, a former US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. Those preparatory talks included a July 7, 2012 meeting in Oman attended by Sullivan and Talwar, but not Burns, the AP reported.

“I was a member of a preparatory exploratory team that met with the Iranians on a couple of occasions to see if we could get talks going on the nuclear program,” Talwar told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military affairs last month. “We met with the Iranians in Oman last summer. We had another meeting in March of this year.”

“It turned out the Iranians could not move forward with the talks at that point,” Talwar said, referring to the March 2013 meeting in Oman led by Burns and Khaji.

But the US-Iran back channel got traction after the election of Hassan Rouhani, and gained rapid pace after an exchange of letters in August between Presidents Obama and Rouhani. “President Rouhani and the Iranians agreed to move forward with the talks at that time,” Talwar said.

“We then had an accelerating pace of discussions bilaterally with the Iranians,” Talwar said, stressing that the one-on-one talks with the Iranians were “tied from the get-go to the P5+1 process [and] . . . focused exclusively on the nuclear issue.”

Since Rouhani’s inauguration in August, there have been at least five rounds of bilateral talks between the U.S. and Iran, in Oman, New York and Geneva. On the U.S. side, they’ve been led by Burns, and on the Iran side, by Khajji’s successor, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American affairs Majid Ravanchi, sometimes joined by his colleague, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araghchi. Both Araghchi and Ravanchi are members of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, led by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

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Iran FM Zarif ‘Hopeful’ on Nuclear Agreement; Kerry to join talks

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Geneva__ Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said his team will draft the text of a framework agreement with representatives of six world powers, the P5+1, on Friday as negotiations seemed to gather such pace that there was talk that an agreement could even be signed on Friday or Saturday. Amid signs of rapid progress, US Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Geneva Friday to join the talks, a US official said.

“Secretary Kerry will travel to Geneva, Switzerland on Friday at the invitation of EU High Representative Ashton in an effort to help narrow differences in negotiations,” a senior State Department official told Al-Monitor late Thursday.

“We are talking about a framework agreement that includes three steps: objectives, end game, and a first step,” Zarif told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, one of a series he gave in his Geneva hotel at the conclusion of the first day of a new round of nuclear talks that were stunning for their sense of momentum after years of no progress.

“If there is political will, it is not so difficult,” Zarif said. “We are hopeful we can do it. My preference is to be able to move forward quickly.”

“We have to see,” he said. “It’s too early to judge.”

Zarif said significant progress on the outlines of a framework deal had been made at meetings over the past month, including at technical talks in Vienna last week. “In the course of the past three weeks…the ingredients of each step have been more clearly defined,” Zarif said.

“Maybe we are sill at the recipe stage,” he said, regarding what reciprocal steps the six powers might offer Iran in exchange for Iranian steps to restrain its nuclear program in the first phase of an envisioned two-step deal. “We know the ingredients, and the right amount of each ingredient in the recipe.”

On Thursday, Zarif had breakfast with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, then headed the Iranian delegation at a brisk, 45-minute plenary meeting with diplomats from the P5+1. Then the Iranian team, headed by Zarif’s deputy Abbas Araghchi, proceeded to hold four, one-hour meetings, first with three European powers, then with the Russians, then with the U.S. team, led by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and then with the Chinese.

“We had a good plenary,” in which all the delegations expressed the desire “to find common ground in order to move forward,” Zarif said. “Then we had rather long bilateral discussions.”

Next comes “starting serious draft writing,” Zarif said. “We know the challenge: just putting on paper all these discussions…We will already have made good progress. Whether it will be enough to sign a joint communique in the afternoon, it all depends on how much progress” is made Friday.

Asked if the sense of momentum towards a framework deal after years of little or no progress was an illusion, Zarif said he didn’t think so, but cautioned there were still many potential obstacles.

“I think we’re on the right track,” he said. “It’s a very difficult stage we are in–trying to put …that which was said [sometimes] informally [in meetings] on paper, to have consensus.”

“We should not prejudge the outcome,” Zarif said. “The general trend is positive.”

An hour or so after Zarif spoke Thursday, lead US negotiator Wendy Sherman, returning to the diplomats’ Geneva hotel, had an impromptu tete a tete with Iranian deputy foreign minister Araghchi, after encountering him in front of the elevator. The two diplomats spoke for a few minutes in a hallway off the lobby, before Sherrman went up.

Araghchi earlier told Al-Monitor in a brief interview that his team’s one hour meeting with Sherman and the US negotiating team Thursday was “very useful and productive.”

A U.S. official, speaking not for attribution Thursday, told Al-Monitor that from the U.S. perspective, the talks made real headway in the afternoon meetings.

(Top Photo: Lead US Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, arrives for Iran nuclear talks at the United Nations in Geneva Thursday November 7, 2013, accompanied by her deputy and veteran State Department arms control advisor James Timbie. Credit: Derrick Bridiers, US Mission in Geneva Flickr account. Bottom photo: US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman talks with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi at the Geneva Intercontinental Hotel after an impromptu meeting in front of the elevators Thursday evening November 7, 2013, as negotiations towards a framework deal seemed to be making headway. By ISNA.)

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