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

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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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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.)

Top Iran, EU diplomats agree to meet to plan new nuclear talks

Top European diplomat Catherine Ashton has agreed to meet soon with Iran’s new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, to advance preparations for resumed nuclear negotiations. The meeting plans come amid unconfirmed Iranian media speculation about Zarif possibly playing a key role in the negotiations–speculation that may be linked to new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's expressed interest in having the nuclear negotiations conducted at higher level representation, Iran analysts suggested.

Ashton, in a congratulatory phone call to Zarif on Saturday August 17th, said six world powers “were ready to work with the new Iranian negotiating team as soon as they were appointed,” a press statement (.pdf) from the office of the European Union foreign policy chief said. Ashton and Zarif also agreed “to meet soon.”

Western officials said Sunday that Ashton's proposed meeting with Zarif did not indicate in any way whether Zarif was expected to be Iran’s chief interlocutor in the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, succeeding Saeed Jalili, Iran’s former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.

A spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry said Sunday that no such decision has yet been made, Iranian media reports said.

American officials, speaking not for attribution Sunday, said they were awaiting the appointment of Iran's new nuclear team, and indicated they were aware of unconfirmed Iranian rumors and media reports that Rouhani was studying transferring Iran’s nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Zarif, a former Iranian envoy to the United Nations who earned his PhD at the University of Denver, forged ties with many US national security experts when he served in New York, and his appointment as foreign minister has been seen in the West as an encouraging sign. So too has that of outgoing foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi to become Iran's next chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI).

Zarif, for his part, demurred in an interview Saturday on whether the nuclear dossier was being moved to his purview, while noting that Iranian President Rouhani had the authority to make such a decision.

“I have not heard anything about this issue,” Zarif told Iran's IRDiplomacy August 17th. “This is a decision that is within the domain of the President’s authority. Nevertheless, considering my experiences in this case, I will make efforts to help in the advancement of this issue no matter what responsibility I might have. But decisions with regard to how we should pursue the nuclear dossier and the form and framework of negotiations are made at the higher levels of our political system.”

Zarif “is a smooth operator, a very clever and successful diplomat,” Gary Samore, former Obama White House WMD czar, told Al-Monitor in an interview earlier this month. “When I knew him, [after Iran indicated it was going to resume enriching uranium after a suspension in] 2005, I engaged in a number of discussions about the nuclear program; he was a very forceful advocate… but that’s fine. He’s more pleasant to deal with.”

“I have seen no indication of a change of substance” in Iran’s nuclear negotiating stance as yet, Samore, now with Harvard's Belfer Center, continued. “The next couple of months are all about process. Will there be some kind of bilateral [US-Iran] channel established, which I think everybody agrees is a necessary condition for achieving an agreement.” Continue reading

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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When Iran's Saeed Jalili met one-on-one with US diplomat Bill Burns

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Even as Iran presidential candidate and presumed frontrunner Saeed Jalili has flaunted his anti-US hardliner credentials on the campaign trail, it’s worth noting a less remarked-upon aspect of his professional resume. In October 2009, Jalili became one of the only Iranian officials to meet one-on-one with a US diplomat in three decades.

The meeting, with then Under Secretary of State William Burns, now the US Deputy Secretary of State, took place October 1, 2009, at a villa outside Geneva, on the sidelines of Iran nuclear negotiations with six world powers.

Lead US negotiator Burns and Iran’s Jalili held a “one-on-one sidebar conversation,” a White House spokesman confirmed at the time. “The sidebar occurred at the Villa”–Villa Le Saugy, in the Swiss countryside village of Genthod–during a lunch break in the nuclear talks with the so-called P5+1.

Iran and six world powers announced tentative agreement at the Geneva meeting on a nuclear fuel swap deal that would provide fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor in exchange for shipping out most of Iran’s stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium; but the deal later broke down at follow up technical talks in Vienna.

Iran also agreed at the Geneva talks to let IAEA inspectors visit the secret Fordo enrichment facility at Qom, whose discovery the leaders of the United States, UK and France had jointly announced just days before, at a G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.

“Iran is on notice that when we meet with them on Oct. 1 they are going to have to come clean and they will have to make a choice,” President Barack Obama, flanked by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said September 25, 2009.

In retrospect, it seems plausible that the Iranians agreed to the sit-down with the Americans in Geneva as a tactical gesture, out of concern over the western reaction to the discovery of the Qom enrichment facility, which Iran only hastily declared to the IAEA after it realized it had been discovered. But one Iranian source, speaking not for attribution, said the political decision in Tehran to hold the bilateral meeting with the Americans had already been taken.

Following the Geneva meeting, US envoys subsequently briefed foreign allies “that the U.S. sidebar meeting with Iranian representatives was direct and candid,” according to an October 5, 2009 US diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Manilla that was released by Wikileaks. While “the discussions were a constructive beginning,” the US envoys also relayed, “they must now be followed by positive action.”

“Iranian press gave considerable coverage to the bilateral meeting between [Under Secretary] Burns and Jalili,” another October 4, 2009 US diplomatic cable, sent from the U.S.'s Iran regional presence office in Dubai, noted. “While little coverage went beyond the Department's announcement that the meeting had taken place, Tabnak noted that unlike Iran's previous discussions on the nuclear issue, this time it was face-to-face with the US.” Another Iranian paper described the meeting as “unprecedented,” the US diplomatic cable continued.

Jalili’s deputy, Ali Bagheri–who has lately been accompanying Jalili on the campaign trail–acknowledged the Jalili-Burns sidebar meeting in an interview with Iran’s state television at the time, but stressed the meeting occurred only at the Americans’ insistence.

“The meeting of the US delegation with the Iranian delegation was held at the request of the Americans,” Bagheri, now deputy of the Iran Supreme National Security Council, told Iran’s state-run TV, Fars News reported at the time, adding: “Elaborating on the contents of sideline talks between the Iranian and American delegations, Baqeri said that the meeting was held merely within the framework of Iran's proposed package.”

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Jalili thrusts Iran nuclear stance to center of presidential race


The presidential campaign of Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili has thrust Iran’s nuclear policies to the center of Iran’s tumultuous presidential race.

Jalili, in a series of media interviews, appearances and campaign Twitter posts this week, doubled down on Tehran’s hardline stance in negotiations with six world powers, asserting that as president he would “accelerate Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”

“Our nuclear objective is very legitimate & reasonable: To accelerate developing the peaceful Nuclear program,” Jalili’s official campaign Twitter feed wrote Friday.

Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, then took a swipe at key challenger, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani. “Other policies will be seriously criticized [and the] current nuclear approach… defended,” Jalili’s campaign vowed on Twitter. [We] “shall see what [is] Mr. Rafsanjani’s policy.”

Jalili’s message seems notably targeted to one key audience at this point: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran watchers observed.

Jalili’s message of “resistance–political resistance, economic resistance–that feeds the narrative of the Supreme Leader,” said Iran political analyst Yasmin Alem, in an interview Thursday. It may resonate less, however, she added, with the average Iranian voter.

Jalili’s message “might resonate with Khamenei,” Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of A Single Role of the Dice, agreed Friday. “That’s the ‘voter’ whose vote he wants.”

“The fact that [the Jalili campaign writes] it in English is the point: he will be the president who will say this to the westerners,” Parsi added.

“Most of the main candidates”—Tehran mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, former foreign minister and foreign policy advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati, former Majles speaker Haddad Adel, and Jalili—“are campaigning not for the Iranian electorate’s votes, but for the approval of Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, observed Friday. In his opinion, he said, that portends that June 14th will mark “the least democratic election” since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

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Who Is Saeed Jalili?


Four days after entering Iran’s presidential race, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili met with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Istanbul on Wednesday.

‘We had a useful discussion. It was not a negotiating round,” Ashton said after the dinner meeting, which was held at Iran’s consulate in Istanbul. “We talked about the proposals we had put forward and we will now reflect on how to go on to the next stage of the process. We will be in touch shortly.”

The negotiators’ meeting comes as six world powers have more or less put Iran nuclear diplomacy on hold while Iran’s presidential campaign, scheduled for June 14th, plays out.

Jalili’s entrance into Iran’s presidential race highlights some of the complications western negotiators confront in securing a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.

While Iran’s nuclear file–as lead US negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told a Senate panel Wednesday– is controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, not the Iranian president, the deep fissures that have roiled the Iranian regime under the polarizing Ahmadinejad presidency have greatly complicated international negotiators’ task by making internal Iran consensus that much harder for Tehran to achieve.

Jalili, 47, a trusted Khamenei aide who has served since 2007 as the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) — the Iranian equivalent of National Security Advisor–has managed to largely bypass the bitter feuds that have polarized Iran’s ruling factions, analysts and associates observe. As a candidate who may be able to unite key conservative factions, a Jalili presidency potentially offers the prospect of a more consolidated Iranian leadership, which might be able to muster internal Iranian consensus if the Leader decides to make a deal, some analysts suggest.

But Jalili’s elliptical negotiating style and somewhat retro worldview, while no doubt reflecting the milieu and instructions given from the Supreme Leader, also magnify the extreme difficulty of negotiating with an Iranian regime that is so isolated from and mistrustful of the outside world.

“I think he is the anointed one,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst at the Brookings Institution Saban Center, told Al-Monitor. The regime “may test run it, see how he [does], if anybody else appears to take off.”

While Jalili has developed the reputation in some Iranian circles of being a not very effective international negotiator, Maloney said, “what is interesting is that Jalili managed the Ahmadinejad-Supreme Leader divide astutely. He has not been forced to side with one or the other.”

Current and former Iranian associates describe Jalili as a pious and intelligent man, who has earned the trust of the Supreme Leader, but shown a disinclination to deeply engage with the modern world.

Born in 1965 in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, where Supreme Leader Khamenei is also from, Jalili is an Iran-Iraq war vet who joined Iran’s foreign ministry around 1990. (Earning his PhD from Iran’s Imam Sadeqh University, Jalili wrote his doctoral dissertation on the prophet Mohammad’s diplomacy.) He worked in the 1990s as an official in Iran’s foreign ministry, and then in 2001 joined the Supreme Leader’s office. In 2005, he became an advisor to new Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since 2007 he has served as the Iranian equivalent of National Security Advisor and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.

“Before he became secretary of the SNSC, he worked in the office of the Supreme Leader for some time, in the inner circle, in the international affairs department,” an Iranian analyst and associate, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “He is liked [there] as somebody who is down to earth, who has a simple life, very honest. He is the prototypical revolutionary whom they like within the clerical system; they [and the Supreme Leader] trust him in a way.”

But part of Jalili’s appeal for Khamenei and the clerical circles is a kind of self-selecting isolationism and retro way of looking at the world, that seems somewhat stuck in the 1980s, when Iran fought an eight year war with Iraq, the Iranian analyst observed.

Though Jalili served for over a decade in Iran’s foreign ministry, he never served abroad, and allegedly turned down an offer to serve in Latin America, the associate said. And while Jalili worked for a time in the Foreign Ministry’s Americas’ bureau, he is not believed to be able to speak much English, the lingua franca of international diplomacy which is spoken by many Iranian diplomats, though his associate said he believes Jalili can read and understand it.

“That’s the real problem,” the Iranian analyst said. Figures like Jalili who have ascended to the top of Iranian conservative political circles in recent years “are not stupid. They are intelligent. But they have not been socialized in the way that global politics works.”

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Iran nuclear negotiator responds to Obama on Persian poet


US and Iranian leaders often seem to be talking past each other. But President Obama’s Persian New Year’s message drew rare acknowledgement from Iran’s top negotiator at nuclear talks in Kazakhstan this past weekend. What prompted Saeed Jalili’s remarks were not the usual issues of contention in stalemated nuclear talks–20% enrichment and buried bunkers–but poetry; specifically, Obama’s citation in his March 16 Nowruz message of a couple lines of poetry from the 14th century Persian poet Hafez.

“As you gather with family and friends this Nowruz, many of you will turn to the poet Hafez who wrote: ‘Plant the tree of friendship that bears the fruit of fulfillment; uproot the sapling of enmity that bears endless suffering,” Obama said in the videotaped Nowruz message, which stressed his continuing preference to peacefully resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, and urged Iran’s leaders to take steps to reduce tensions and accept a “practical solution.”

Jalili–speaking at an April 6 press conference after two days of intense but inconclusive talks with six world powers that failed to produce much headway–said the message of the 700 year old poem cited by Obama is that he should ease sanctions on Iran if he wants to reduce enmity between the two countries. Continue reading

‘Robust’ Iran nuclear talks reveal gulf between sides

Almaty, Kazakhstan__ Iran and six world powers remained far apart at the conclusion of two days of talks here without agreeing to meet again, but American and European diplomats said the Iranians had engaged more deeply than ever before on the details of a potential nuclear compromise.

“Two days of talks just concluded that were indeed quite substantive,” a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists at the conclusion of talks Saturday. “Each session involved a robust discussion … [that was] more natural and free-flowing than past talks.”

“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” the US diplomat said. “There was intensive dialogue on key issues at the core of [the proposed confidence building measure.]. Both sides came away with better understanding of each others’ positions.”

Among the interchanges described, was a 30-45 minute back and forth between the lead US negotiator at the talks, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Iran’s lead negotiator Saeed Jalili, in which Sherman asked Jalili a series of specific questions and he responded.

In meetings Saturday, Iranian negotiators apparently said what Iran would require in exchange for suspending 20% enrichment was the lifting of all unilateral sanctions, an Iran analyst attending the talks said was his understanding, based on conversations on the side-lines of the talks with members of the Iranian team.

The Iranian position is so far apart from where the P5+1 proposal is, international negotiators seemed taken aback. The intensive discussions over the past two days revealed a “significant gulf” between the two sides, the US official said.

“Lost in translation,” the Iran analyst described Iran’s positioning to Al-Monitor, saying he fears it could appear not as hard bargaining, but an expectations gap that may be harder to close.

American and European diplomats said they are committed to the diplomatic process, but did not agree to the Iranian request to schedule new talks yet, in part to signal Iran that it had not come to Almaty with what they considered a sufficiently concrete response to their revised proposal. The updated international offer eased some previous demands that Iran totally shut the Fordo enrichment facility but asked it suspend operations there, and would allow Iran to keep enough 20% fuel for the country’s domestic medical needs. It also offered some modest sanctions relief on trade in gold and precious metals and petrochemical sales.

We “had long and intensive discussions on the issues,” during which “it became clear that the positions of the E3+3 and Iran remain far apart on the substance,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said at a press briefing at the conclusion of talks here Saturday.

“We have therefore agreed that all sides will go back to capitals to evaluate where we stand in the process,” Ashton continued, saying she will call her Iranian counterpart Jalili soon to “see how to go forward.”

Iranian negotiators arrived in Almaty this week taking a hard line, calling for an endgame road-map that would give it assurances of the recognition of the right to enrich and the lifting of sanctions before it would move on a short-term confidence building measure focused on curbing 20% enrichment. But western negotiators pushed back, saying they were puzzled and disappointed in the “minimal” Iranian presentation. Iran then pivoted over the next 36 hours to arguing for a better deal, sources said.

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P5+1 seeks ‘clear and concrete’ response from Iran in Almaty

20130404-101537.jpgAlmaty, Kazakhstan__ Western diplomats said Thursday they hope Iran comes here with a “clear and concrete” response to a revised international proposal aimed at curbing Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work.

“What would be most helpful is for Iran to give us concrete responses, what they think they’re willing to do on this proposal, what gives them concerns, …[to] get into a real and substantive negotiation,” a senior US administration official told journalists in a conference late Wednesday ahead of boarding a flight to Kazakhstan. “I’m hopeful that they will do that.”

“We would of course like them to come and say, ‘We accept the proposal. Now let’s work out the details,’” the American official continued. “But that’s not usually the way these things work. … That’s why you’re in a negotiation to begin with.”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton “calls upon Iran to give a clear and concrete answer to the E3/EU+3′s Almaty proposal,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for Ashton, said Thursday.

Diplomats from Iran and six world powers are gathering here ahead of the third set of nuclear talks in the past five weeks, which are due to get underway Friday. International negotiators presented a revised international proposal at high level talks held in Almaty in February, and then held technical talks in Istanbul last month.

The Iranian negotiating team is expected on Friday to present a response to the latest P5+1 proposal, that includes Iran’s suggested steps, an Iranian source suggested Thursday. Iran’s counter proposal will aim “to test” western intentions, he said.

“We think our talks tomorrow can go forward with one word,” Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said in a talk to Kazakh university students Wednesday. “That is the acceptance of the rights of Iran, particularly the right of enrichment.”

Striking a familiar theme, Jalili also criticized nuclear armed world powers that seek to limit other countries’ nuclear rights. “No country should have a nuclear weapon,” Jalili said.

Despite the tough tone, western diplomats said Iranian technical experts were particularly engaged and focused on substantive details at technical talks held in Istanbul March 18th that went on for twelve hours. The Iranian technical team was not authorized to negotiate, however, the American diplomat said, but rather to seek more information and clarification on the international proposal.

The Iranian team, in Istanbul, indicated Tehran was considering an international request to suspend 20% enrichment for six months, and to continue converting Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium to oxide for medical use, a diplomatic source told Al-Monitor last month. However, the Iranian team expressed objections to other elements in the international proposal, the diplomat said. Among them: suspending other operations at the Fordo facility except 20% enrichment, shipping out its 20% stockpile, and increased IAEA inspections.

Iranian diplomats have also said that while they consider the revised international proposal an improvement from one presented in Baghdad last year, they still find it “imbalanced” between its demands and the incentives it offers.

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