Technical talks between Iran and six world powers on implementing a Nov. 24 Iran nuclear accord got underway in Vienna on Monday, as top US officials vigorously argued that the six month deal will strengthen international security by halting the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program while negotiations towards a comprehensive deal take place.
“I am convinced beyond any doubt that Israel becomes safer the moment this first-step agreement is implemented,” Kerry told the Saban Forum in Washington DC on Saturday (Dec. 7).
“We hope that by the end of these talks, we can start implementing the first step of the Geneva agreement before the end of the year,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi told Al-Monitor by email Monday about the technical level talks.
The talks, which started at 3pm Monday, are “to discuss implementation of the 24 November agreement,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told Al-Monitor.
The EU delegation to the Vienna talks includes EEAS nuclear experts Stephan Klement and Klemen Polak.
Iran’s delegation to the talks is led by Hamid Baeedinejad, the Director General of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Ravanchi said.
The US delegation to the Vienna technical talks includes James Timbie, the top nonproliferation advisor to Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman; Richard Nephew, the State Department’s deputy Iran sanctions expert; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran and Iraq Brett McGurk, and Adam Szubin, from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC).
Parallel to the consultations with the Iranians, US officials are also traveling around the world to discuss how to implement the sanctions relief in the phase 1 deal, while maintaining the major architecture of oil and banking sanctions on Iran. Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State Amos Hochstein and Peter Harrell are traveling to China, India, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates for consultations on easing sanctions on Iranian trade in gold and precious metals, and permitting Iran to receive $4.2 billion in frozen assets from oil sales, but not unwinding sanctions further than that spelled out in the six month deal.
The technical talks on implementing the six month, Phase 1 deal come as President Obama and Secretary Kerry told a pro-Israel security forum in Washington over the weekend that the deal would increase Israel’s security by lengthening the time it would take Iran to have nuclear weapons breakout.
“For the first time in over a decade, we have halted advances in the Iranian nuclear program,” Obama told the Saban Forum Saturday. “We are going to have daily inspectors in Fordow and Natanz. We’re going to have additional inspections in Arak. And as a consequence, during this six-month period, Iran cannot and will not advance its program or add additional stockpiles of…enriched uranium.”
Kerry is due to testify on the Iran deal to the House foreign affairs panel Tuesday. Lead US negotiator Wendy Sherman is also supposed to testify on the Hill later in the week, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.
Kerry will further discuss Iran when he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his ninth visit to Jerusalem later this week, Psaki said.
Israel’s new national security advisor Yossi Cohen is also in Washington this week for consultations with US counterparts on the Iran deal. American officials have urged Israel to consult on terms for a comprehensive agreement, rather than litigate the terms of the Phase 1 deal, which Israel has opposed. “The real question is what’s going to happen with the final agreement,” Kerry told the Saban forum.
The Obama administration is pressing Congress to hold off on passing new Iran sanctions even if they would not take effect until after six months and only if a comprehensive deal is not reached. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned in an interview published by Time Monday that new US sanctions would sink the deal.
“If Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States,” Zarif told Time’s Robin Wright.
(Photo by the EEAS of British Foreign Secretary William Hague, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva, Switzerland on Nov. 24.)
New York__ President Obama spoke by phone with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani Friday, officials from both countries said, another remarkable gesture in a week in which US and Iranian leaders moved tentatively to test opportunities to forge more direct contacts in and out of the public spotlight.
“Just now, I spoke on the phone with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Obama said in a hastily arranged press conference Friday. “The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program….While there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward, and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution.”
The 15-minute phone call–the first between presidents of the two countries since 1979–was initiated by Obama at 2:30pm Friday as Rouhani was wrapping up his four day trip to New York, after the Iranians reached out Friday to express interest in a call, US and Iranian officials said. It came a day after Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also made history, by meeting one on one Thursday for half an hour, on the sidelines of six party nuclear talks.
Obama, in the call, congratulated Rouhani on his election, and urged that the two leaders seize the opportunity for a nuclear deal, a senior US administration official said Friday. A “breakthrough on the nuclear issue could open the door to a [more constructive] relationship between the US and Iran,” the US official summarized.
“The Iranian and US presidents underlined the need for a political will for expediting resolution of West’s standoff with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program,” Alireza Miryusefi, a spokesperson for the Iranian mission to the UN, said in a statement Friday.
“President Rohani and President Obama stressed the necessity for mutual cooperation on different regional issues,” he said.
Some observers, noting that President Obama himself announced the call in a live statement at the White House Friday and the Iranian president's office's tweets on the call, suggested there may have been more substantive information exchanged between the two sides this past week to warrant such unusual displays of enthusiasm from cautious leaders.
The Iranians “came here to do a deal, and whatever they said [Thursday in the Kerry Zarif meeting...] persuaded the White House that this was not just a charm offensive,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department policy planning official and an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution Saban Center, said Friday.
“They have a deal outlined,” she said. “Whatever they've communicated must be legitimate and compelling to have drawn out this risk-averse president.”
A Twitter account purporting to be linked to Rouhani's office also described the call–in tweets the White House said they saw and which they said accurately conveyed the tone of the call–though Iranian officials in New York said they do not confirm the account is legitimate.
“In phone convo, President #Rouhani and President @BarackObama expressed their mutual political #will to rapidly solve the #nuclear issue,” the @HassonRouhani account said, and which the White House twitter account (@WhiteHouse) retweeted.
In the call, according to a tweet on Rouhani's Twitter account that was later deleted, Obama expressed his “respect for [Rouhani] and the people of Iran. I'm convinced that relations between Iran and US will greatly affect region. If we can make progress on nuclear file, other issues such as Syria will certainly be positively affected.”
Obama signed off on the call, which was conducted through translators, with a Persian goodbye, after Rouhani wished him farewell in English, the White House said. (Rouhani's Twitter account, in a tweet that was later deleted, said Rouhani told Obama in English, 'Have a Nice Day!' and Obama responded with, 'Thank you. Khodahafez.')
On Tuesday, the Iranians declined a US offer to have an Obama Rouhani encounter or handshake in New York, when both leaders addressed the United Nations General Assembly.
Rouhani and Zarif have both described Obama and Kerry in positive terms this week, and expressed optimism about negotiations to ease tensions between the West and Iran, starting with the nuclear issue.
“The end goal is to ensure the interests of both sides, step by step to build confidence between the two nations,” Rouhani told journalists at a press conference Friday.
(Top photo: Historic phone call in the Oval Office: President Obama talks with Iran President Hassan Rouhani this afternoon. Pete Souza, White House. Second photo, from @HassanRouhani Twitter account: 'After historic phone conversation with @BarackObama, President #Rouhani in plane abt to depart for Tehran.')
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.
President Obama refrained from declaring the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi a military coup in a statement issued Wednesday after White House consultations with his national security aides.
“No transition to democracy comes without difficulty, but in the end it must stay true to the will of the people,” Obama said in the statement.
“The United States continues to believe firmly that the best foundation for lasting stability in Egypt is a democratic political order with participation from all sides and all political parties —secular and religious, civilian and military,” he said.
Obama statement “expressing deep concern over the military's decision to remove President Morsi tracks that [U.S.] legislative definition of a coup very closely, and I can't help but think that's deliberate,” Tamara Wittes, a former senior State Department Middle East official who heads the Brookings Saban Center, wrote. “The law in place is designed to give coup-established governments a strong incentive to return their countries to democratic rule — aid can resume as soon as new democratic elections are held.”
Meantime, Egypt's Al-Tahrir newspaper had a message for President Obama on its front page Thursday:
Top Photo: President Obama, photographed on Wednesday meeting with his national security team to discuss the situation in Egypt. To his left, new National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Attorney General Eric Holder, CIA Director John Brennan, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Jake Sullivan, national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. To Obama's right, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, DNI James Clapper. Secretary of State John Kerry called into the meeting by phone, State Department officials said. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.
Second photo of Al-Tahrir front page from the Newseum, posted to Twitter by @Jfdulac.
Expectations are low for an Iran nuclear deal before Iranian presidential elections in June, former White House nuclear advisor Gary Samore told the Brookings Institution Monday. After that, it’s possible Iran might agree to a deal on curbing its 20% enrichment, or it will face increasing economic sanctions, Samore said.
“I think it’s possible Iran could decide after the presidential elections to accept the small deal on the table now,” Samore, who served as President Obama’s ‘WMD czar’ until January, told the panel on Iran negotiations Monday.
From Iran’s standpoint, “it’s a good deal,” Samore, now executive director of the Harvard Belfer Center, continued. “If it is looking at ways to create a respite” from economic sanctions, “what’s on offer might do that.”
The panel on negotiating with Iran comes as diplomats from Iran and six world powers return to Almaty, Kazakhstan later this week for the second round of nuclear talks in the past five weeks.
Diplomats, stressing no date or location has yet been set, tentatively expect six world powers to hold a new round of nuclear talks with Iran in January.
Part of the hold-up is jammed-up calendars—NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels this week, several dozen countries’ top diplomats are due to meet in Morocco on Syria next week (December 12); the IAEA is due to visit Iran next week (December 13).
But a larger reason for the delay and current sense of uncertainty on when nuclear talks will resume is that the six powers that make up the so-called “P5+1” have still not agreed amongst themselves whether and how to refresh the package presented to Iran at the next meeting, diplomats speaking not for attribution told Al-Monitor in interviews in recent days.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alluded to intense consultations on the matter last week.
“We are deeply engaged in consultations right now with our P-5+1 colleagues, looking to put together a presentation for the Iranians at the next meeting that does make it clear we’re running out of time, we’ve got to get serious, here are issues we are willing to discuss with you, but we expect reciprocity,” Clinton said at the Saban Forum of US and Israeli diplomats and Middle East experts last week (November 30th).
Britain’s political director Mark Sedwill and some of his team were in Washington last week for consultations with their American counterparts about that and other matters.
Some diplomatic sources thought that the United States and EU3—the UK, France and Germany–were expecting to reach consensus on the matter among themselves by the end of last week, but there were signs that the issue was still being discussed among the six as of Tuesday.
Clinton repeatedly stressed that the United States believes a bilateral conversation between the Americans and Iranians could help advance prospects for a nuclear deal.
“We have, from the very beginning, made it clear to the Iranians we are open to a bilateral discussion,” Clinton, speaking to the same Saban Forum, continued. “So far there has not yet been any meeting of the minds on that. But we remain open. … But we understand that it may take pushing through that obstacle to really get them fully responsive to whatever the P-5+1 offer might be.”
Al-Monitor has previously reported that the Americans were inclined to urge expanding the offer to “more for more”—while the Europeans had not reached consensus on that as of the meeting of P5+1 political directors held in Brussels on November 21st.
The “more for more” offer, as one US source explained it to Al-Monitor last month, would envision updating the “stop, ship, and shut” offer regarding 20% uranium enrichment to get more verifiable limits on the rest of Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for greater international concessions, including some form of sanctions relief.
“’Refreshing the package’ is the language being used,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor in an interview last week (November 3oth). “Consultations are continuing on how to refresh it.”
“But I am not impressed with” the diplomatic preparations to date, Clawson said. “The conversations are extremely timid.” The argument that there are only a “few windows” before Christmas to hold a meeting struck him as implausible, he said.
However, some diplomatic sources suggested international negotiators may be hoping to use the delay and distractions of the season to hold a couple quiet, technical meetings with the Iranians before the next round of high-level political talks. Such technical talks, held with minimal publicity, could be a way to try to narrow differences ahead of getting to the political directors’ meetings with Iran, where little progress to date has been made.
American and Iranian nuclear experts had “several” conversations at P5+1 “technical” meetings with Iran held in Istanbul July 3rd, diplomats told Al-Monitor, leaving unclear if subsequent conversations or contacts amongst those involved occurred after that date.
A spokesperson told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he had no information about any further contacts between the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton or her deputy Helga Schmid and Tehran.
Meantime, several sources told Al-Monitor they expected the US Iran team to undergo some changes as national security appointments shake out in Obama’s second term. Some sources thought chief US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman, the Undersecretary of State for Policy, would likely leave when Clinton’s successor gets her or his team in place. Several sources also said State Department arms control envoy Robert J. Einhorn is likely to depart, for a chair waiting for him at the Brookings Institution. White House WMD czar Gary Samore may stay on for now, administration sources suggested.
Despite possible changes in the US Iran negotiating team, “the administration is determined that the transition will not be a problem in moving forward,” Clawson said.
(Photo: Political directors from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China met in Brussels November 21st, at a meeting on resuming Iran nuclear talks hosted by European Union foreign policy chief and chief international negotiator Catherine Ashton. Photo posted by the European External Action Service.)