Sen. Kaine says Russia can do more to resolve Syria crisis

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Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat-Virginia), speaking to Al-Monitor Friday before he embarked on a Congressional delegation to the Middle East, said while there is cautious optimism about current U.S. efforts to advance a diplomatic resolution with Iran and an Israeli Palestinian peace agreement, U.S. Syria policy is not going well. And Russia is partly to blame, he said.

“I think Secretary [of State John] Kerry is pretty candid about it,” Kaine told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Feb. 14th, before traveling with Sen. Angus King (Independent, Maine) to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt. “Discussions, with all appropriate skepticism about Iran and [an] Israel Palestinian [peace agreement]– while elusive so far– those discussions are going well. Results will prove later if we can get there. But the Syrian situation is not going well. He’s been pretty candid about that. One of the main reasons is Russia continues to be an apologist for unacceptable behavior” by the Syrian regime.

“It’s one thing for Assad to do what he is doing to his people; we have known from the beginning what he is,” said Kaine, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 and became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East and South Asia subcommittee last summer. But Russia is a “country that pretends to aspire to world leadership, that it could get him to change his behavior when it wants to.”

The U.S. “was able to change Russia calculations with regard to Syria’s chemical weapons,” Kaine noted. But on stalled peace talks in Geneva it’s “not going well.“

What leverage, though, does the U.S. have to get Russia to put more pressure on the Syrian regime? After all, it took the prospect of imminent US military action last fall to get Russia to propose getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

Russia does “have pride,” the Virginia Democrat said. “They do want to be a global leader.” Last fall, it was both the prospect of U.S. military action in Syria, as well as the “global spotlight [on] Syria’s use of chemical weapons against women and kids,’ that affected Russia’s calculations on a chemical weapons deal, Kaine said. Continue reading

U.S. says willing to join Russia in Syria peace talks

As a new round of Syria peace talks got underway in Geneva Monday, the United States said it was open to a Russian proposal that American and Russian diplomats join the UN and Syrian parties in a joint meeting.

“We have always supported full implementation of the Geneva  communique, and if additional meetings under UN auspices will help the negotiations move forward, we are very ready to consider these,” a U.S. official in Geneva, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in an emailed statement Monday.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, speaking to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency, proposed “that Russian, American and U.N. officials meet the Syrian government and opposition delegations at peace talks in Geneva,” Reuters reported.

“Russia diplomats are approaching the organization of the negotiating process as creatively as possible,” Bogdanov said.

US officials said the focus of this week’s meetings should be on “having the Syrian delegations start the detailed discussions” on establishing a transition governing body with full executive authority.

US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is due to hold a three-way meeting with UN/Arab League joint Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov in Geneva on Friday, the State Department confirmed.

“Moving forward, we will continue to do what we can to help JSR Brahimi’s efforts succeed, including through our regular engagement in Geneva with the UN, Russia, the London 11, and the opposition delegation,” the US official said, regarding the Russian proposal.

The proposal for bringing the major powers into the meeting with the Syrian parties came as the United Nations and Syrian Red Crescent evacuated over 1000 people from the besieged old city of Homs over the weekend and managed to deliver emergency food and medical supplies in harrowing conditions, including sporadic shelling, mortar and rifle fire. At least eleven Syrians waiting to be rescued were killed in Homs over the weekend, a UN spokesman said Monday, and a Syrian Red Crescent driver was wounded when the group’s convoy came under attack trying to bring food aid into Homs on Saturday, the group said.

The Syrian Red Crescent and two affiliated Red Cross organizations expressed alarm about the targeting of the relief convoys to Homs and pleaded for a halt to the violence against humanitarian aid workers in Syria.

The groups “join in calling for immediate steps to be taken to protect healthcare and humanitarian personnel,” they said in a joint statement Monday. “Without respect for the emblems and protection of those bearing them, crossing front lines to save lives is all but impossible.”

The Syrian regime agreed to the Homs aid operation after weeks of negotiations under heavy pressure from Russia and Iran, the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher reported from Homs Sunday.

But despite Russian efforts to facilitate the humanitarian operation in Homs, Russia has said it would likely oppose a UN Security Council resolution on Syria humanitarian aid access being circulated in New York by Jordan, Australia and Luxembourg, saying it is not the right time and the draft proposal is too far reaching. China and Russia did not show up for a UN Security Council meeting on Monday to discuss the measure, the New York Times reported. Itar-Tass cited Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin: “This text would not have any practical, positive impact on the situation.”

The UK and France have said they will try to push for such a measure this week.

“The Security Council should require full and unimpeded humanitarian access, including to those areas being besieged by the regime,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote in an oped Tuesday. “It should demand an immediate end to the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and to impunity for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses. And it should call for the regime to stop using barrel bombs and other kinds of weaponry against innocent civilians.”

(Photo: Syrian families being evacuated from the besieged old city of Homs by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent society and UN on Sunday, February 9, 2014.  Photo by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Homs Media Committee.)

US negotiator hears, amid skepticism, Senate support for diplomacy with Iran

With support waning for Iran sanctions legislation, top US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman and Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen testified on the Iran nuclear deal to the Senate foreign relations panel Tuesday.

Despite sinking prospects for the Iran sanctions bill he co-sponsored, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) expressed continued deep skepticism about the terms of the interim Iran nuclear deal which went into effect on Jan. 20, and to be looking for ways to constrain the administration’s hand for negotiating a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal.

But the nitpicking, somewhat sour tone of the hearing was broken by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), who made an impassioned case for aggressive US diplomacy with Iran, while defending colleagues who supported the Iran sanctions legislation from charges of war-mongering.

“We have to be able to look allies and citizens & [US service members] in the eye and tell them we exhausted every diplomatic effort,” Kaine told the hearing. “We have got to give diplomacy a chance. …. We have to return to the tradition of aggressive diplomacy.”

“Everyone would prefer a diplomatic path to [a] non-nuclear Iran,” Kaine said. “We have good faith differences on tactics.”

Kaine’s comments, praised by several other Senators, prompted Sherman to reach out to lawmakers, some of whom had championed the sanctions legislation the Obama White House fiercely opposed and threatened to veto. “I don’t believe any of you are war mongers,” Sherman said. “I don’t believe anyone prefers war.”

If diplomacy is unable to succeed in getting Iran to forgo a nuclear weapon and the US ultimately decides it needs to use force, “I want to be able to say at the end of the day, we have exhausted every opportunity to negotiate a diplomatic” solution, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) said, noting he had not declared a position on the sanctions bill, and praising Kaine’s defense of colleagues on both sides of it.

Another member of the panel, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), noted that he had been on a panel with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Munich Security Summit last weekend.

Earlier in the hearing, Menendez had pressed Sherman on the administration’s terms for a comprehensive nuclear deal. Sherman said she doesn’t want to negotiate with Iran in public, ahead of comprehensive Iran nuclear deal talks set to get underway in Vienna Feb. 18. But in response to his questions, she said the United States does not believe the underground Fordo site should be an enrichment facility in a final deal, or that Iran should have a heavy water reactor.

“Where Fordo is concerned, we see no reason for it to remain an enrichment facility,” Sherman said. Asked about Arak, she said, “We do not believe [there is] any reason for [a] heavy water reactor.”

Asked about how many centrifuges Iran could have in a final deal, Sherman responded, “I am not going to get into a specific number in this setting, but that needs to be addressed.” “Will there need to be a reduction?” Menendez asked. “Yes,” Sherman said.

She also clarified some misunderstandings about the centrifuge research and development Iran is permitted to do under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). Iran, under the JPOA, cannot work on advanced centrifuges not listed in Nov 14 2013 IAEA report, she said. It can only replace centrifuges in enrichment sites of the same type, not with more advanced models, she said.

The Joint Plan of Action “required Iran to come clean on past actions as part of a comprehensive agreement,” Sherman said. She suggested there will be an additional step or steps between the Phase 1 deal and the final deal, to bring Iran into compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, that would require Iran to address questions such as possible military dimensions to its nuclear program and alleged weaponization work carried out at the Parchin facility to which the IAEA has not gotten requested access.

“Iran has not rejected” addressing it, Sherman said. “It knows it has to be addressed.” Continue reading

US, Russia consult on stalled Syria aid


Amid halting progress at Syrian peace talks in Geneva, the United States and Russia held several levels of consultations on Wednesday to try to advance stalled Syria humanitarian relief efforts.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday to push for progress in a UN plan to deliver humanitarian aid to the besieged Syrian city of Homs, the State Department said. The UN plan, presented by Russia to the Assad government last week, has still not received approval from the Assad government, US officials said.

“We expect there will be many paths, many parallel processes, as we all work to pursue an end to this conflict,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department press conference Wednesday (January 29). “And that means yes, the regime and the opposition talking… That means engagement through the UN.  That means Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov continuing to engage. “

In the call with Lavrov, “Secretary Kerry pressed for Russia’s help in providing humanitarian assistance and making progress on that,” Psaki said.  “There are 12 trucks waiting outside of Homs with over a hundred tons of food.  These trucks are a hundred yards away from people that are in desperate need of assistance, and they must be granted permission by the regime into the old city of Homs.”

“He also talked about the importance of continuing to press the regime to move forward with the necessary steps on the chemical weapons process,” Psaki said.

US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, in Moscow to attend a meeting with G-8 political directors, met on Syria Wednesday with Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov, the Russian Foreign Ministry reported.

The Voice of Russia cited a source on the Russian-US consultations in Moscow: “We have discussed in detail the current situation at the inter-Syrian talks and agreed that we need, first, to strengthen cooperation between ourselves and step up pressure on the negotiating parties to interact more actively in searching for a compromise.”

The US Syria diplomatic team in Geneva, led by US Syria envoy Robert Ford and including National Security Council counselor Salman Ahmed, also met with Russian counterparts in Geneva on Wednesday, as it has done several times during the Geneva talks, the official said.

Talks between the two Syrian parties are expected to continue until Friday and then resume after a week or so, UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahim said Wednesday.

“I do not expect that we will achieve anything substantial” by the end of week, Brahimi told a press conference in Geneva Wednesday. The “ice is breaking slowly, but it is breaking.”

US sources on Wednesday denied Arabic media reports that the US was meeting with Russian and Iranian officials about Syria.  Iranian media reports on Wednesday also cited Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir Abdollahian denying an Arabic media report alleging a secret meeting between Iran and the Syrian sides in Bern, Switzerland.

(Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at a joint press conference in Moscow. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA.)

Both Egypt, US reviewing their relations, Egypt’s envoy says

Egypt and the United States are reviewing their relations, but both countries benefit from their strategic partnership, Egypt’s envoy to Washington said Monday.

“No doubt we are in a state in which both sides are revising their concepts about the relationship,” Egypt’s Ambassador to the United States Mohamed Tawfik told Al-Monitor in an interview Monday. “We are reviewing it in more ways than one. The objective of this review is not to downgrade relations, but rather to make sure to continue to build relations, but on sounder and stronger foundations.”

“Sometimes you may take things for granted,” the Egyptian envoy said. “It is important to understand in what ways both benefit from it.”

Tawfik spoke from Cairo’s embassy two days after Egypt’s interim government announced that Egypt would hold a referendum next month (January 14-15th) on a new draft constitution—a step the envoy said would help Egypt advance the democratic process and let Egyptians move forward in the wake of the July 3 ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. It also came as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was expected on Wednesday to introduce legislation that could ease US assistance to Egypt and give the administration more leeway to waive current restrictions on aid after a military coup.

“We are continuing to work with the Congress to ensure we obtain the funding and authorities necessary to provide assistance for Egypt, consistent with the approach we outlined earlier this year,” Bernadette Meehan, spokesperson for the National Security Council, told Al-Monitor Wednesday of the Egypt aid bill.

“The idea is to put in place democratic institutions and a democratic process and leave the door open for everyone to participate,” Tawfik said of the upcoming referendum on the draft constitution. “We are on track in the road map.”

But US-Egyptian ties may take longer to adjust. The envoy declined to comment on a New York Times report  from October citing National Security Council officials suggesting that Egypt would be less of a priority for the White House in Obama’’s second term. But he said Washington should not take Egypt for granted.

“Egypt has been and will remain a central player in the Middle East,” Tawfik said. “Its role is indispensable… The United States needs and will  continue to need regional partners who are dependable and at the same time have the acceptance of different parties in the region. Egypt is that first and foremost.”

In the meantime, Cairo has been looking to expand ties with Russia and China.  “Our policy is that we need to widen our options,” Tawfik said. “And have good relations with all countries, including with Russia and China. However, he added, “this should not be at the expense of relations with the US.”

Egypt’s interim rulers have in recent months been intensifying efforts to fight jihadi extremists in Sinai and have struck tunnels into Gaza, a priority for Egypt as well as Israel. and the United States “One of the areas that we have been very active in in the past few months has been to try and deal with the extremists in the Sinai,” Tawfik said. “And to destroy some of the tunnels into Gaza. This has been so far a successful operation. This certainly has served Egypt’s national interests, and been very useful for the US as well.”

Asked about violence in the Sinai, Tawfik said the area had become more fertile ground for extremists during Morsi’s one year rule.  “No doubt that the number of extremist elements in Sinai increased dramatically during the one year in which the Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt,” Tawfik said. “Now it is up to us to deal with that issue. So [the extremists] are not able to harm Egyptians. These are very dangerous elements.” Continue reading

Exclusive: Burns led secret US back channel to Iran


Geneva, Switzerland __ Deputy Secretary of State William Burns has led a secret U.S. back channel to Iran going back to before the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, U.S. officials told Al-Monitor.

Burns was tapped to lead the US diplomatic effort to establish a bilateral channel with Iran, which gained momentum after the exchange of letters between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Rouhani in early August, US officials said. Led by Burns, the US’s second highest ranking diplomat and a former lead US Iran nuclear negotiator, the US effort to form direct contacts with Iran also includes two officials from the Obama White House: Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, and Puneet Talwar, the National Security Staff senior director for Iran, Iraq, and Persian Gulf affairs, US officials confirmed. Talwar’s role in back channel discussions with Iran was previously reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Following the exchange of letters between Obama and Rouhani in August, “Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts,” several times over the past few months, starting before the UN General Assembly opening session in September and in Geneva this month, a senior U.S. Administration official told Al-Monitor in an interview late Friday.

President Obama referred obliquely to the establishment of a direct U.S.-Iranian channel in a statement from the White House after negotiators for six world powers and Iran reached a nuclear deal here in Geneva tonight.

“We have pursued intensive diplomacy – bilaterally with the Iranians, and together with our P5+1 partners: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, as well as the European Union,” Obama said from the White House Saturday. “Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure – a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”

Al-Monitor learned that Burns was in Geneva during the second round of nuclear talks between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, UK, France, Russia, China) plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran held here November 7-9, and subsequently learned additional details about the bilateral channel, but agreed to hold the story at the administration’s request until the conclusion of the third round of nuclear talks that ended here in a breakthrough tonight.

Al-Monitor also learned that Burns is currently in Geneva during this round of Iran nuclear negotiations. Both times, he did not stay at the main diplomatic hotel, the Intercontinental, where many of the negotiations have taken place, but at another site, the US official said. Talwar has been seen by journalists at bus stops in the city and running towards the hotel at various times during the last three rounds of talks here; it could not be confirmed if he was relaying messages between the discussions taking place on site at the hotel, where the US, European and Iranian delegations stay, to Burns at another site.

US officials did not confirm by name which Iranian officials participated in the meetings with Burns. Al-Monitor has learned that they involved two of his diplomatic counterparts, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, the top deputies on the Iranian nuclear negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iranian officials did not respond to previous queries from Al-Monitor about alleged meetings with Burns.

“You know we have always said that we are open to bilateral discussions with Iran, in addition to the P5+1,” the senior US administration official told al-Monitor in an interview. “But this was always with the understanding that the nuclear negotiations were going to be resolved through the P5+1 even if other bilateral channels were going on.”

Burns’ first sit-down with the Iranians occurred before the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, the US official said, and helped bring about the 30-minute meeting between Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the UN September 26, 2013, as well as the historic Obama-Rouhani phone call on September 27th, the first conversation between the presidents of the two countries in over thirty years. The US official declined to say where the two Burns-led meetings with the Iranians occurred before UNGA; there have, in all, been “several,” the US official said.

“Bill [Burns] knows the Iranians, and he knows the issue really well,” the senior US administration official told Al-Monitor to explain why he was tapped for the sensitive mission.

Burns, only the second career US foreign service officer to be confirmed as deputy secretary of state, previously served as the lead US negotiator at P5+1 talks with Iran from 2008-2011, including at October 2009 talks in Geneva at which then Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili agreed to a nuclear fuel swap deal that Iran later backed away from amid domestic political criticism. In July 2011, when Burns was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State, he turned over the Iran/P5+1 nuclear negotiating file to his successor, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who has led the US negotiating team to the last eight rounds of P5+1 talks with Iran that culminated in an agreememt here.

Burns also previously served as US Ambassador to Russia from 2005 until 2008, and as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 until 2005. Zarif, tapped by Rouhani as foreign minister and top nuclear negotiator in August, previously served as the Iranian ambassador to the UN in New York in the early 2000s, during a brief period of testing for more constructive US-Iranian relations, including on Afghanistan in 2001.

“Running up to the [June] 2013 Iranian election, there was a sense that we had to wait and see if the Iranians under the new administration were serious about negotiations,” the US official said. “And it became clear after the Rouhani election, that they seem serious.”

“Following the election, as has been reported, Obama sent Rouhani a letter that was delivered in early August,” the official said. “Following the exchange of letters between the two presidents, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts before UNGA.”

“In those conversations, Burns and his team began to develop ideas that could be fed into the P5+1 process,” the US official said. “All of our bilateral discussions are designed to support and advance the P5+1 process; they have never been designed as a substitute. “

“As the P5+1 negotiations started picking up, Burns was joined as needed by [Under Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman,” the US official said. “They worked together to develop ideas that could be further negotiated with the P5+1. The goal, everything in the bilateral channel, was to be fed into the P5+1 channel,” the official stressed.

The US has notified P5+1 partners about the bilateral channel, the US official said, but would not disclose when. “We briefed them on the bilateral channel at the appropriate time,” the US official said. There are signs that at least some P5+1 partners were not aware of it at the second round of nuclear talks in Geneva Nov 7-9, during which the six world powers spent much of the meeting agreeing on their own text which they finally presented to Zarif late November 9.

“At the second and third rounds [of P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva], Burns was present on the margins, to be available to the P5+1 and the Iranians, and to make sure the ideas discussed were integrated back into the P5+1,” the US official said.

“Given that so much of the economic pressure on Iran comes from the United States among other reasons, that is one reason it was important to establish this direct channel,” the official said. “Our P5+1 partners all encouraged us to have a bilateral channel, and they all have their own. And they told us, eventually to get an agreement…these discussions would be necessary.”

“None of the substance in the bilateral channel differed from the P5+1,” the US official stressed. “New issues weren’t raised. It enabled more detailed discussions [to occur] in the P5+1. It’s not like any of the issues are a secret.”

Talwar has served as the top Iran advisor to the Obama White House since 2009, and previously served as a professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when it was chaired by then Senator, now Vice President Biden.

Sullivan, previously deputy chief of staff to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during Obama’s first term, became Vice President Biden’s national security advisor early this year, after Clinton stepped down from the job.

White House press officials have previously deflected queries from Al-Monitor about possible, rumored meetings involving US and Iranian officials. An NSC official suggested to Al-Monitor last week, for instance, in response to a query, that Sullivan could not be part of a meeting with Iranians because he was last week traveling with Biden in Texas and Panama. Sullivan did not respond to a query from Al-Monitor Saturday.

Similarly, the State Department’s official public schedules have regularly dissembled about Burns’ whereabouts. During both the second and current round of P5+1 Iran nuclear talks in Geneva this month, the State Department schedule said Burns was attending meetings at the White House and State Department, when Al-Monitor has confirmed that he was in fact in Geneva, even in advance of the rest of the US negotiating team. That was apparently at the direction of Burns’ office to the State Department press officer who puts together the schedules, the official said.

“We thought it important to have these discussions [with the Iranians] discreetly, given the amount of ground we had to cover, lots of it very complicated,” the US official said Friday. However, the official added, “while in some respects” the US-Iran channel “had to be secretive, it is not a surprise.”

(Photo: Deputy Secretary Burns leads the U.S. delegation at the UNHCR High-Level Segment on Syrian Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. State Dept Image / Sep 30, 2013.)

Progress, but no deal yet, as Iran talks conclude

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Geneva__ Talks between Iran and six world powers made progress in narrowing differences but did not yield an agreement, despite raised hopes after US Secretary of State John Kerry and other P5+1 foreign ministers flew in over the past two days, in seeming anticipation of a breakthrough.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at a first-ever joint press conference at the conclusion of talks, put an upbeat spin on the past three days’ proceedings, saying significant progress had been made and announcing they would meet again in Geneva on Nov. 20-21, this time at the political director level.

But France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius preempted their press conference, breaking protocol to announce, ahead of Ashton, that they had not reached an agreement.

Earlier Saturday, Fabius announced that he did not accept the draft nuclear accord, abandoning the usual efforts by the P5+1 to project unity and keep details of their internal discussions and disagreements behind closed doors.

“There is an initial text that we do not accept,” Fabius told France’s Inter radio Saturday morning, according to a translation provided by a French reporter here. “There are several points that we are not satisfied with.. If those questions will no be addressed it will not be possible [to reach agreement]. I want a deal but we have to be careful not to be played for fools.”

France’s concerns were reported to center on wanting Iran to halt work on the Arak heavy water facility during the negotiations, as well as on Iran’s stockpile of 20% uranium.

Kerry, speaking after the talks early Sunday, did not explain why a deal couldn’t be closed here, but said he thought an agreement is within reach.

“We came to Geneva to narrow differences, and I can tell you without any exaggeration we not only narrowed differences and clarified those that remain, but we made significant progress,” Kerry said at a press conference after the talks. “There’s no question in my mind that we are closer now, as we leave Geneva, than we were when we came, and that with good work and good faith over the course of the next weeks, we can in fact secure our goal.”

He said the negotiations had been “conducted with mutual respect, in a very serious and civil way.”

Kerry did not mention his unprecedented over eight hours of meetings with Iran’s Zarif over the past two days. But there were signs of a growing sense of ease and normalcy to US-Iran interactions at the talks that did not exist before he and Zarif met on the sidelines of the UN in New York in September.

Iranian diplomats said the meetings between Zarif, Kerry, and Ashton and their top deputies had been good and productive, and expressed optimism about prospects to finalize a nuclear accord in the upcoming weeks.

“I think it was natural, when we start dealing with the details, that there will be differences in views,” Zarif, speaking in English, said at the press conference with Ashton. “I am not disappointed at all, it was a good meeting.”

Western diplomats did not deny frustration over Fabius’ behavior at the talks, but did not disparage the concerns he raised, but rather that he raised them publicly–thus giving the impression that it was the western powers that were divided over the text, and doing so in a way that diminished prospects for a deal here.

France believes that Iran should halt construction of the Arak heavy water reactor during the first phase of a nuclear agreement, which is envisioned to last for six months, during which a comprehensive deal would, in theory, be hammered out. Some other powers believe that Arak could be part of an end state deal, since it is not due to come on line until late 2014.

A former western diplomat said over the past year, France’s political director Jacques Audibert “has repeatedly assured the U.S. side that, if there is a deal in the offing, the French will not stand in the way, their hard-line posturing in past months notwithstanding,” he said, calling it “very surprising…the French are the holdup at this moment.”

But western diplomats privately did not dispute the basic narrative that was the case, and their disappointment.

Kerry, asked at the press conference if the P5+1 had been blindsided by the French position here, answered indirectly, saying the delegations had arrived with a draft document that had some bracketed text that the parties expected to further negotiate on here.

Continue reading

Kerry and Iran’s Zarif meet on nuclear accord, as talks extended

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Geneva __ Talks on a prospective Iran nuclear accord will be extended for at least a third day after US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met here for almost five hours Friday with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The negotiations were productive, but there is much work still to be done, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi said as his delegation returned to the diplomats’ hotel just before midnight after the meeting.

There are only a few issues outstanding, but they are significant, another member of the Iranian delegation said.

Neither Kerry nor Ashton said anything upon their return from the meeting.

Talks are set to continue here on Saturday at 8:30am, Iranian diplomats said.

It’s unclear if a formal agreement will be signed here this weekend, but there was still some sense of expectation that it could happen, as well as signs that progress was being made on the substance of a prospective deal, for the first time in years.

“I want to emphasize there is not an agreement at this point in time, but the P51 is working hard,” Kerry said upon his arrival in Geneva Friday. “We hope to try to narrow those differences, but I don’t think anybody should mistake that there are some important gaps that have to be closed.”

As talks appeared to be making rapid progress Thursday, Kerry decided to fly here from Israel, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vehemently denounced the prospective deal as a historical mistake that would reward Iran for making few concessions. US President Obama called Netanyahu Friday to reiterate his commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, as well as his preference to try to peacefully resolve the issue.

Foreign Ministers from France, Britain and Germany also flew to Geneva Friday, and held consultations with Ashton, before she hosted the five-hour trilateral meeting with Kerry, Zarif and their teams at the EU mission here. Political directors from the six powers seemed to be holding simultaneous meetings back at the hotel.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov decided only late Friday that he should come–apparently related to a crisis or roadblock in the talks that came up in thr afternoon, a diplomat said –and is expected to arrive in Geneva Saturday morning. The diplomat indicated that there are intense negotiations underway on the draft text of a prospective accord, involving parties submitting amendments and revisions. In Russia’s opinion, he said, some sides–he implied the U.S.–were making mistakes, which he declined to clarify.

China’s deputy foreign minister is also expected to arrive here Saturday, reports said. “We are working very hard,” a member of China’s negotiating team said Friday.

Iranian and western diplomats have said they hope to reach a framework accord that would seek to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program in two phases. In the first phase, Iran would agree to suspend certain of its nuclear activities–such as 20% enrichment and the installation of more centrifuges–and accept more verification and monitoring, probably for six months, in exchange for limited sanctions relief. By halting the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program, a senior US administration official explained in a background briefing on the eve of talks Wednesday, that would give time and space for the P5+1 and Iran to try to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement that could constrain Iran’s enrichment program and implement mechanisms to verify that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons, in exchange for the lifting of major oil and banking sanctions.

But Iran has made clear that recognition of what it sees as its right as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty to domestically enrich nuclear fuel be part of any end state deal, while some western powers hesitate to grant Iran such upfront permission. Thus working out a framework agreement that seeks to lay out both a first step and end state deal at the same time is complex, even among negotiators of good will.

Separately, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced Friday that IAEA director general Yukiya Amano will travel to Iran on Monday (Nov. 11), his first visit in over two years.

Kerry is likely to stay in Geneva until Sunday, officials suggested. He will then travel to Abu Dhabi, before returning to the United States, but has had to cancel previously planned stops in Algeria and Morocco, the State Department said.

Iran FM Zarif outlines ideas to exit nuclear dispute

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Istanbul __ Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Friday he believes Iran and six world powers should accept each other’s chief objectives as their own in order to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

“On the nuclear issue, I believe the problem we have faced in the last ten years is we have both seen the nuclear issue as a zero sum game; we have articulated two seemingly opposing objectives, and each tried to make gains for one objective seemingly at the expense of the others,” Zarif told an audience of Middle East nonproliferation specialists convened in Istanbul Friday by the Pugwash conference on nuclear disarmament.

“The result has been that ten years ago, Iran had less than 160 centrifuges spinning, now it has over 18,000,” Zarif, speaking in English, said. While ten years ago, “Iran’s economy was prospering, now sanctions are hurting the wrong segment of the population. I hope we have come to understand that approach was wrong.”

Zarif said he proposed, at meetings with the P5+1 in New York and Geneva the past two months, a new approach: that Iran accepts the West’s objective that Iran never have a nuclear weapon, and that the West accept Iran’s objective that it have a peaceful nuclear energy program that includes domestic enrichment, with mechanisms to verify it not be used for military purposes.

Iran’s nuclear know-how and technology are now “homegrown,” Zarif said, to explain why he thinks it in the West’s interest to accept Iranian enrichment. You “cannot kill all our scientists and kill our program. …You cannot destroy the technology. How to ensure [the program] is peaceful: allow it operate in a transparent fashion; you cannot push it under the rug.”

Asked whether he believes President Obama would be able to sell Congress on an Iran nuclear deal that includes sanctions relief, Zarif said he would leave American domestic politics to the Americans to sort out: “I do not interfere in American domestic politics.” Both sides have public opinion on their side to pursue a negotiated settlement, he said he believes, but formidable hardline constituencies to contend with at home as well.

“I believe leaders need to show leadership,” Zarif said. “I think experience shows, once there is a good deal, the US president will be able to sell it, and I think we will be able to sell it too.”

Zarif spoke here, at a presidential palace overlooking the Bosporous on the Asian side of the city, on a panel with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, on his first official visit to Turkey since assuming the post of foreign minister in the Hassan Rouhani administration in August. While Zarif and Davutoglu had warm words for each other, the two nations’ differences on Syria were apparent. However, they agreed that the US-Russian agreement that led to Syria’s decision to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles and join the chemical weapons ban was a positive development, and urged that it be a first step towards a broader agreement towards ridding the entire Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.

“I agree with my good friend and brother, Javad-bey,” Davutoglu said. “Something good happens with the Syria chemical weapons ban, at least the process has started.”

Zarif, whose back seemed much improved from when he appeared at a press conference in Geneva last month in a wheel chair, was due to travel on to Ankara Friday for meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu. He is slated to travel to Paris next week, ahead of leading the Iranian delegation to the next round of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, in Geneva on November 7-8th.

(Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif speaks at a press conference in Istanbul on Friday, November 1, 2013. Associated Press.)

Obama corresponds with Iran’s Rouhani, holds out hope for nuclear deal

President Obama, speaking to ABC in an interview taped Friday and broadcast Sunday, confirmed that he and Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani have exchanged letters, and said he holds out hope that the US and Iran can reach a nuclear deal. But he said that negotiating with Iran would not be easy, and stressed that Iran should not doubt his resolve to prevent it getting nuclear weapons, despite the US agreeing to a last-minute Russian bid to remove Syria’s chemical weapons to avoid possible U.S.-led air strikes.

“I have. And he’s reached out to me,” Obama said, when asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos if he’d reached out to the new Iranian president.

“I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue,” Obama said, citing the risks to US “core interests” that a nuclear armed Iran would pose to Israel, and of a nuclear arms race in the region.

“My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck [Syria] to think we won’t strike Iran,” Obama said. “On the other hand, what…they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”

“Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult,” Obama said. “I think this new president is not gonna suddenly make it easy. But you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact you can you can strike a deal… and I hold out that hope.”

Obama–interviewed a day ahead of the announcement that the U.S. and Russia had reached a deal on removing Syria’s chemical weapons—also said that he would welcome efforts by Russia and even Iran to help end the civil war in Syria, despite considerable disagreements over the conflict and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“I think that if in fact not only Russia gets involved, but if potentially Iran gets involved as well in recognizing that what’s happening there is a train wreck that hurts not just Syrians but [is] destabilizing the entire region…we can do something [about] it,” he said.

The president’s confirmation of the correspondence with Rouhani comes as a former member of Rouhani’s nuclear negotiating team wrote that Iran’s Supreme Leader has given permission for US-Iran direct talks.

“Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued permission for President Hassan Rouhani’s new administration to enter into direct talks with the U.S.,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian wrote in an oped published by Japan Times Friday (Sept. 13). “No better opportunity to end decades of bilateral hostility is likely to come along. ”

Asked by Al-Monitor Sunday if Khamenei has given permission for direct talks on the nuclear issue or Syria, Mousavian replied: “both.”

Former State Department Iran analyst Suzanne Maloney described the letter exchange as part of a broader series of recent signs of a still fragile but potentially unprecedented shift in the Islamic Republic.

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