Iran nuclear advisor: Almaty 'decisive turning point'

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An advisor to Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator has called the nuclear negotiations held in Almaty, Kazakhstan last week a “decisive turning point,” in three years of strategic calculations between the United States and Iran.

Mahdi Mohammadi, the former political editor of Kayhan who attended the Almaty negotiations as a media advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, wrote an analysis of the talks for the Iranian media that was published in English by Iran Review on March 7:

They expected Iran to change, but in practice, it was the United States which changed. I believe that an important mental shift has occurred in the minds of the US statesmen about the definition of a nuclear Iran. As a result of that change, the definition of the red line which should not be crossed by Iran, and the definition of “Iran's nuclear energy program” in a way that the United States would be able to accept it in a face-saving manner, have also changed. The only reason which caused the Baghdad proposal to change in Almaty was a change in the strategic calculations of the United States during the past year.

The updated international proposal presented to Iran in the Almaty talks on February 26-27 requests that Iran suspend operations at Fordo, rather than shutter the facility. It also would allow Iran to produce and keep enough 20% to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor which produces nuclear isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients. In exchange, it offered Iran relief from sanctions on the gold trade, and petrochemical sales, diplomatic sources told Al Monitor.

The revised proposal “calls for a suspension of the production of near 20 percent enriched uranium – an element common to the Iranian and P-5+1 positions,” a senior US official told journalists in Almaty February 27:

It would significantly restrict the accumulation of near 20 percent enriched uranium in Iran while enabling the Iranians to produce sufficient fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.  It would suspend enrichment at Fordo and constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there.  It would call for enhanced IAEA monitoring measures to promote greater transparency in Iran’s nuclear program and provide early warning of any attempt to rapidly or secretly abandon agreed limits and produce weapons-grade uranium.

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In exchange for these constraints, the Almaty proposal would build on the Baghdad proposal by offering some steps to ease sanctions on Iran.  […] In keeping with that principle that sanctions easing should be proportionate to the measures accepted by Iran, the sanctions easing offered at this initial stage do not deal with the sanctions currently having the greatest impact, mainly oil and financial sanctions.  […]

Nonetheless, the sanctions easing steps contained in the Almaty proposal are meaningful and would be of substantial benefit to Iran.  They do include pledges to refrain from additional UN Security Council and European Union sanctions imposed as a result of the nuclear issue.  They also include a suspension of a number of significant U.S. and EU sanctions.

Iranian reaction to the Almaty talks has been notably positive, while western reaction has been more muted.

“They”–the Iranians–“are really upbeat about these negotiations,” an Iran analyst told the Back Channel Wednesday following a meeting with Iran’s envoy to the United Nations. However, some members of the P5+1 “don’t like the positive spin. They think the Iranians want to portray ‘we won.’”

The sanctions relief presented in the updated package is the most generous the six world powers could offer at this time given the level of mistrust and legislative constraints associated with most sanctions imposed, said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group which last week published a detailed analysis of the sanctions imposed on Iran and the complexity of unwinding them.

“After six months looking at the sanctions regime, the offer could not be more generous,” Vaez told the Back Channel. Continue reading

Iran, world powers agree to new nuclear talks in Istanbul, Almaty

Almaty, Kazakhstan__ Negotiators from Iran and six world powers announced they would hold two more meetings over the next month to discuss a new international proposal aimed at curbing Iran's 20% enrichment and nuclear breakout capacity, in exchange for some sanctions relief. The announcement came at the conclusion of two days of talks here that have seemingly turned out to be among the most positive of the past year, though both sides say they still have some work to do to narrow differences.

The parties agreed to hold an experts meeting in Istanbul on March 18, followed by a political directors meeting, again in Almaty, Kazakhstan on April 5-6, negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran announced in a joint statement at the conclusion of talks Wednesday.

Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili described the Almaty meeting as “positive,” while his American and European counterparts characterized it, more cautiously, as “useful,” stressing the imperative is results, not atmospherics.

“I would say it was a useful meeting,” a senior US official told journalists Wednesday. “The day we have concrete results, I will use a different adjective.”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, speaking at the conclusion of talks Wednesday, said she welcomed if the Iranian side “are looking positively at proposals we put forward.” But, she added, “I believe in looking at what the results are.”

The centerpiece of the two-day meeting was a presentation Tuesday by Ashton of a revised international proposal focused on curbing Iran's 20% enrichment, suspending operations at the fortified Fordow enrichment facility, and increasing nuclear safeguards, transparency and IAEA inspections that would prevent a rapid Iranian breakout capability, the US diplomat said.

The updated offer somewhat eases demands to entirely “stop, shut and ship” its 20% stockpile made in a proposal put forward in Baghdad last May.

Unlike the past proposal, the updated one would allow Iran to keep a sufficient amount of its 20% enriched fuel to fuel a research reactor that produces isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients, the US diplomat said.

The revised proposal also calls for “suspension of enrichment” at Fordo–rather than shuttering the fortified facility, built into a mountain in Qom– and would “constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there,” the American official said. It also calls for enhanced IAEA monitoring measures “to promote greater transparency…and provide early warning” of any attempted breakout effort, the official said.

In exchange, the proposal offers an easing of some sanctions. The US official said the proposed sanctions relief at this stage does not involve oil or financial sanctions, but other US and European Union imposed sanctions, which the official declined to specify. It would also offer to not impose new UN Security Council or European Union proliferation sanctions, as the previous offer also had. “We never regarded sanctions as an end in themselves,” the American official said.
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The US official declined to say whether the updated proposal asks Iran to halt installation of more advanced centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility, that could considerably speed up Iran's enrichment capacity.

Jalili offered rare praise for the international proposal, acknowledging it demonstrated a clear effort to respond to Iranian concerns. “We believe this is a…turning point,” he said through at a translator at a press conference Wednesday. The six parties “have moved closer to our proposal.”

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Iran diplomat offers tentatively positive take on Almaty talks


Almaty, Kazakhstan__An Iranian diplomat, in an interview with Al-Monitor, offered a cautiously positive take on the nuclear talks that got underway in Kazakhstan Tuesday, though he said Iran still considers that a new international proposal asks more of Iran than it offers.

“We think in Almaty the whole frame is positive, because we are going to discuss the principles [and] specifics,” the Iranian official, who did not wish to be named, told Al-Monitor shortly after nuclear talks got underway here Tuesday. “We believe that until now, there has not really been a negotiation.”

“I can’t say what will be the outcome,” the official continued. “But we think the outcome should be some technical meetings.” That would seem to correspond with what Western diplomats said Monday, that they were hoping to have a follow up meeting, or a series of follow up meetings, with the Iranians at the technical experts level, ideally beginning before Iran’s Nowruz New Year’s holiday in March.

Both Iran and the P5+1 agree that a comprehensive deal “is not possible right now, so both sides are trying to solve one part of it,” the Iranian diplomat said. “Both sides agree on which part to solve right now,” as a first step, focused on Iran’s 20% enrichment activities, he said.

From Iran’s perspective, he continued, however, “the problem is, what the P5+1 wants to give us is not [balanced with] their requests.”

The updated P5+1 proposal formally presented to Iran Tuesday includes some sanctions relief on the gold trade, petrochemical industry, and some small scale banking sanctions, according to a source close to the talks who received a copy of it late Monday from a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Al-Monitor first reported earlier Tuesday.

“We have come here with a revised offer and we have come to engage with Iran in a meaningful way, our purpose being to make sure that we’ve had a good and detailed conversation, with the ambition that we see progress by the end of the meeting,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said ahead of the first round of talks Tuesday.

The revised international offer is “balanced” and “responsive” to what the six powers heard from the Iranians in three rounds of talks last year, Michael Mann, spokesman for Ashton, told journalists at a press briefing in Almaty Tuesday.

Talks got underway Tuesday at 1:30pm and broke off at about 4:30pm. Western officials later confirmed that there had been further consultations among the parties, including Iranian bilateral meetings with the Germans, British, Chinese and Russians, a diplomat said.

Talks will resume for a second day Wednesday, starting with a bilateral meeting between Ashton and Jalili, followed by a plenary session at 11am.

“We had a useful meeting today, discussions took place this evening, we are meeting again tomorrow,” a western official said late Tuesday.

The U.S. delegation to the talks is led by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and includes National Security Staff Senior Director for the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar, State Department arms control envoy Robert Einhorn, another State Department arms control advisor Jim Timbie, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer, and a veteran Farsi-speaking US diplomat who specializes in Iranian affairs Alan Eyre.

Iran’s delegation includes the Secretary of Supreme National Security Council Dr. Saeed Jalili, his deputy Ali Bagheri, legal/nonproliferation advisor Hamid-Reza Asgari,, the head of the Iranian foreign ministry IPIS think tank Mostafa Dolatyar, Iran deputy foreign minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi, and former Iranian ambassador to the UK Rasoul Movahedian-Atar.

(Photo: Participants sit at a table during talks on Iran's nuclear programme in Almaty February 26, 2013. REUTERS/Stanislav Filippov/Pool.)

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US diplomat: Six powers to outline ‘clear path’ for Iran sanctions relief, nuclear power


Almaty, Kazakhstan — Western diplomats said Monday they will put an updated proposal with some sanctions relief on the table when they meet with Iranian negotiators in Kazakhstan Tuesday for the first time in almost eight months.

They also stressed that they are hoping to get some momentum for a higher tempo of meetings with the Iranians in the coming months, possibly to be held at the technical experts level, in order to try to advance prospects for a deal (or assess Iran’s willingness to make a deal). Notably, diplomats signaled they would offer the Iranians a “clear pathway” to further sanctions relief and a civilian nuclear program, hinting at possible recognition of what Iran considers its right to enrich at the end of a step by step process.

“The real message is for Iran to appreciate there is a path forward for them to get the relief they are seeking and have a peaceful nuclear [energy] program,” a senior US official told journalists in Almaty Monday.

“What we will try to do here is put a modified proposal on the table, that both takes into account changes in Iran’s [nuclear] program, and is responsive to Iran’s desire for the P5+1 to recognize Iran’s needs,” the US diplomat said.

The modified international proposal is a “real, serious, and substantive” offer, the American official said. “We are trying to outline a pathway for sanctions relief. The President has been clear if Iran keeps all its obligations… under the NPT and IAEA….there is absolutely a pathway for it to have peaceful nuclear power.”

While western diplomats said they did not expect a breakthrough at the talks in Almaty this week, they did express the clear hope that Iran would be willing to continue talks soon at the technical level–if possible, before the Iranian New Year’s holiday of Nowruz in March.

“What I’d like is for the Iranians to see that the proposal put on the table is a serious one, a confidence building measure, not the final act in the play,” another nation’s diplomat at the talks told a few journalists in Almaty earlier Monday. “To go and consider it and possibly follow up at the experts level, to see if there’s some common ground.”

“Having been through the process before, I would not predict a decisive breakthrough tomorrow, although I’d be delighted if it happened,” he said. “I know usually both sides need time to consider what is put on the table.”

The revised international offer, proposed higher tempo of experts level meetings–which diplomats described as more productive and involving more direct US-Iran interchanges–and outlining path to further sanctions relief could have another purpose: to test out over time if Iran can say yes, or is assessed to be either unwilling or incapable of agreeing to a deal.

The second diplomat somewhat downplayed what has recently been heard as a growing concern in Washington, that the Iranian leadership may be almost incapable of making a deal even if it wanted one, including because of political infighting and unrealistic expectations exacerbated by Iran’s diplomatic isolation.

The Iranians are “sophisticated operators,” the diplomat close to the talks countered.

“There are real challenges for them in reaching a deal,” he acknowledged. “Not least, how to present it in a way that is a win-win solution. We all really want this to be a win-win end state.”

However, sanctions imposed last year on Iran’s energy and banking sectors “can only get lighter in response to steps taken by the Iran side,” he added.

US officials said the modified proposal had not been shared with the Iranians in advance of the Almaty meeting, so that the six powers could present it fully and explain what each element is meant to address. They declined to confirm details of the modified proposal, except to say it offered “some changes and steps in the arena of sanctions relief,” as the US official put it.

An official close to the Iranian delegation told Al-Monitor Monday that the Iranians were coming to Almaty “to listen,” to see if there are “any new ideas.” Continue reading

Iran nuclear advisor sets out ‘maximalist’ stance as Iran mulls new talks

Iran's IAEA ambassador Soltanieh and Iran's IAEA advisor Asgari attend a meeting on the Iranian nuclear issue in ViennaAmid a continued stalemate in efforts to resume nuclear talks, a key advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team has published a proposal he says has been previously presented to the United States and five world powers for resolving international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

The author, Mahdi (or Mehdi) Mohammadi, the former political editor of Iran’s hardline Kayhan newspaper, is one of two key architects of Iran’s nuclear negotiating strategy under the team led by Iran National Security Advisor Saeed Jalili, an Iranian source who requested anonymity said.

The other is Hamid-Reza Asgari, the low-profile legal advisor to Iran’s Atomic Energy organization and senior non-proliferation advisor to Iran’s National Security Council. Asgari led Iran’s team to technical talks with arms control officials from the United States and other P5+1 powers in Istanbul July 3rd.. Asgari previously met with American, as well as Russian and French diplomats, in Vienna on October 21, 2009 to discuss the details of a nuclear fuel swap deal that later fell apart amid domestic infighting in Iran.

Asgari “is the real boss,” the Iranian source told the Back Channel.

“The two sides, according to Tehran, should first address each other’s concerns,”  Mohammadi wrote in Iran Review January 9th:

The United States should, thus, recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium and Iran, in return, will announce that it has no plan to build nuclear weapons. In the next stage, the US and the European Union should remove all unilateral sanctions against Iran and Iran, for its part, will take immediate steps to address the remaining concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which the Western countries claim to be very important. In fact, a new round of IAEA’s inspections of and access to Iran’s nuclear sites will begin. In the third stage, Iran will be ready to negotiate about 20-percent enrichment provided that the United Nations Security Council will annul all its sanctions resolutions against Tehran. […]

The proposal, which would not have Iran negotiate curbing its higher 20% uranium enrichment activities until the third step, after the lifting of US and European sanctions, might be viewed as a disheartening sign that Iran may still not be prepared to seriously negotiate. At the same time, it could be read as an Iranian effort not to appear over-eager for a deal, ahead of anticipated negotiations Tehran does hope will lead to sanctions relief.

“It’s all part of the pre-negotiation negotiation,” analyst Mark Fitzpatrick suggested.

“Iran is still in the opening salvo stages of negotiations, presenting its maximalist demands,” Fitzpatrick, a nuclear expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told the Back Channel Tuesday. “And clearly these so-called reciprocal concessions are not in the ballpark for what the six powers can accept. Because Iran is not really giving up anything other than 20%. No mention of Fordo, of its stockpile [of enriched uranium] and no limits on its 5% production.”

“Considering that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad repeatedly said Iran could stop 20% in exchange for fuel for [the Tehran Research Reactor] TRR, now Iran is demanding everything for stopping 20%,” Fitzpatrick continued. “That is not a reasonable position for the P5. And they [the Iranians] need to get in the room and talk seriously.”

The publication of Tehran’s proposal comes as western negotiators have been waiting with growing discouragement for Iran to respond to numerous attempts to schedule a new round of talks with six world powers.

“We have spoken to them a number of times since before the new year and have offered dates and venue, but they still don’t come back with a straight answer,” Michael Mann, a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told the Back Channel Monday. Continue reading

Iran seen stalling on date for nuclear talks

Western diplomats are not encouraged–if not much surprised–by signs Iran is playing games in scheduling a new date for nuclear talks.

Iran doesn't seem ready to negotiate, or else is “playing for time,” one US administration official told the Back Channel over the weekend.

International negotiators have been waiting for Iran to agree on a date for a new round of talks with six world powers–possibly as soon as next week.

“We’re actively working on getting agreement on a date and venue,” a senior western official told the Back Channel Wednesday. “Stay tuned.”

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, speaking in India last week, said he expected talks between Iran and the P5+1 to be scheduled some time this month.

But as of Tuesday, Iran had not settled on a date.

Western diplomats fear if the Iranians don’t RSVP very soon, it will be logistically difficult to put together a meeting for next week.

American officials have interpreted the Iranian delay in scheduling talks to date as a potentially inauspicious sign of continued dysfunction or indecisiveness in Tehran, diplomatic sources tell the Back Channel.

American negotiators “are ready, if Iran says yes, to work through with them a step by step deal,” a Washington non-proliferation expert told the Back Channel Tuesday. “They want to be able to make a deal. And a major concern is whether Iran is capable of making a deal, whether the Supreme Leader is capable of even deciding that he wants to make a deal. That is where their concern is.” Continue reading

Iran nuclear negotiator, in India, blasts US double standards

Amid preparations for a new round of nuclear talks, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator used a speech at an Indian think tank Wednesday to rail against US-led negotiations with the Taliban and what he decried as American double standards on terrorism and a “selective approach to the nuclear rights” of nations.

Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s national security council, spoke to an invitation-only crowd at a New Delhi think tank Wednesday while on a three day official visit to India before traveling to Afghanistan. But the immediate focus of Jalili's India visit, at the invitation of his counterpart Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, seemed to have more to do with shared Indian and Iranian concerns about prospective US-led negotiations with the Taliban that could give Pakistan greater sway in Afghanistan, rather than the nuclear file, Indian analysts said.

“The good news is that Iran is as uncomfortable as India on the back-room developments with regard to Afghanistan as the United States-led international community seems hell bent on 'good' Taliban taking over the land-locked country in the post-2014 scenario of withdrawing American forces from Afghanistan,” Indian analyst Rajeev Sharma wrote.

Jalili, in his speech to the Observer Research  Foundation, “completely avoided specifics and focused on themes – despite very specific questions being asked, he focused on American double standards and US exceptionalism,” an Indian foreign policy analyst who attended the talk told the Back Channel by email Thursday. Continue reading

Nuclear negotiators discuss new talks with Iran

Negotiators for the P5+1 and Iran have held talks on arranging a new meeting soon.

Helga Schmid, the deputy to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, spoke by phone with her Iranian counterpart Dr. Ali Bagheri on December 31st, a European diplomat said.

“The two of them are working on the next meeting to happen soon,” a spokesperson for Ashton’s office said Wednesday.

Iran's top nuclear negotiator, speaking Wednesday in India, also said he welcomed new nuclear talks starting “very soon.”

“We have concluded several rounds of negotiations with the Group. The latest was six months ago in Russia…We hope to soon conduct negotiations with P5+1,” Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran's national security council, told reporters after a speech in New Delhi Wednesday, Outlook India reported Wednesday.

“The time and venue has not been finalized but we hope it will be done soon,” Jalili continued.

Details on when and where the next round of talks will be held have still not been released, but a meeting is expected this month.

Jalili is on a three-day official visit to India. While there, he is due to meet with Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, the Times of India reported.

Jalili is then scheduled to travel to Afghanistan, Reuters said.

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Iran taps diplomat to field US non-official contacts

In a sign of Iranian interest in streamlining back channel contacts and reducing mixed messages ahead of anticipated, resumed nuclear negotiations next month, Iran was said to appoint a central point of contact for approaches from outside-government Americans, two Iran nuclear experts told Al-Monitor this week.

Mostafa Dolatyar, a career Iranian diplomat who heads the Iranian foreign ministry think tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), was tapped by Iran’s leadership to coordinate contacts with American outside-government policy experts, including those with former senior US officials involved unofficially in relaying ideas for shaping a possible nuclear compromise, the analysts told Al-Monitor in interviews this week. The IPIS channel is for coordinating non-official US contacts, which in the absence of formal diplomatic ties, have formed an important, if not unproblematic, part of Iran’s diplomatic scouting and Washington’s and Tehran’s imperfect efforts to understand and influence each others’ policy positions.

The appointment is the result of a desire “on the Iranian side for a more structured approach to dealing with America,” Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran nuclear expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor in an interview Monday, adding that he now doubts that there are agreed plans for direct US-Iran talks after the elections.

“I was told … that Iran had appointed one person to be the channel for all approaches from the Americans,” specifically for former officials and non-governmental experts, Fitzpatrick continued. “And Iran wants to structure that so that Iran is speaking from one voice.“ Continue reading

White House denies report that US and Iran agreed to direct talks

The White House on Saturday denied a report in the New York Times that the United States and Iran had agreed to hold one–on-one talks on Iran’s nuclear program after the US presidential elections next month. But the White House reiterated that the Obama administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

And a Washington Iran analyst told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding that a senior US arms control official has held authorized talks with an Iranian official posted to Turkey.

“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement Saturday. “We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister also issued a statement Sunday denying direct talks with the United States. “Talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations,” Ali Akbar Salehi said at a press conference Sunday. “Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States.”

The Iran analyst, who asked not to be named, told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore has had talks with an Iranian official posted as a diplomat to Turkey. The Iranian official was not identified.

US officials did not respond to requests for guidance from Al-Monitor late Saturday on the allegation a US official has had talks with an Iranian official or in what capacity.

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